Artash Nath. Grade 8 Student. Toronto. Canada.

COVID19 has disrupted education for students around the world. It has closed doors to schools, colleges, and universities. But it has also opened new opportunities.

Being able to attend scientific conferences in our areas of interest virtually is one such opportunity. It is difficult for school students to attend physical conferences because of financial costs, the time needed to stay away from school, inability to travel on their own, visa issues, and gatekeepers to science who discourage younger and diverse generation to participate in them.

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The virtualization of conferences lowers many of the barriers to participation. Interest and enthusiasm to learn new things supersede age, nationality, and background. One can learn from comforts at home, at a very reduced cost, watch videos at any time, ask questions, and network with speakers and participants using online software such as Slack. For any student, this is a wonderful opportunity to learn new things, meet new people and get the big picture on subjects of their interest.

Some barriers remain. The digital divide in terms of access to high-speed internet and personal computers, the financial divide in terms of access to credit cards to register for virtual conferences (even with their reduced registration fees), and the geographical divide (most live streaming happens in times suited to western countries).

SciPy2020 Virtual Conference: Welcoming everyone 

From July 6-12, 2020, the annual Scientific Computing with Python conference (SciPy 2020) was held virtually. It was their 19th conference and the first one to be held virtually. Over the course 0f 7 days, it brought together over 900 participants from all over the world. The full SciPy2020 program consisted of 5 days of tutorials and talks (July 6-10) followed by 2 days of developer sprints (July 11-12).

I am interested in space, robotics, astronomy, machine learning, and building projects which combine all my interests. I have been learning Python on my own for the last 4 years and developing machine learning algorithms for the last 2 years.

Delivering a Lightning Talk at SciPy2020
Delivering a Lightning Talk: Using Machine Learning to Remove Stellar Spots Noise from Exoplanetary Data from Space Telescopes at SciPy 2020

When the schools closed, I had more time and wanted to boost my learning on Python, Astronomy, and Machine Learning. While searching for Python-related events, I came across the link to the SciPy2020 Conference. I had never heard about it before. But checking the contents of the conference website,  I found it to be very interesting and close to what I was looking for. It even had a Teen Track!

It is difficult to find communities merging Python, Astronomy, Machine Learning that are welcoming to school students. SciPy actually encouraged teens to participate. Big thanks to the SciPy community and the organizers for having this welcoming outlook. It will ensure that the Scientific Python community keeps getting newer and diverse talents, and inquisitive minds from all parts of the world. It is good for Python, good for Science and good for the World.

I was even more excited to learn that the conference was not canceled but would happen virtually.  The cost of registration for students was a very reasonable $25. Financial assistance was available for those unable to pay this fee. Furthermore, it was free for anyone to participate in Sprints and the talks and tutorials would eventually be made available on YouTube for anyone to view.

It was one of the most friendly, welcoming, and well organized virtual conferences I have participated in. The online portal was so intuitive and well-designed. that it was hard to believe that the Conference was being organized virtually for the first time.

Plenary Sessions and Topical Talks I Attended

I participated in several sessions (either live or visiting their recordings later on) over the course of the week and enjoyed them. The talks were spread over many subjects: astronomy, biology, geoscience, and materials science. The talks related to how Python and its packages were being developed, improved upon, and applied by researchers and data scientists to push forward science.

Some of the sessions I watched were the keynote talk by Dr. Andrew Chael about on The Event Horizon Telescope: Photographing a Black Hole. It was fascinating to see how MatPlotLib was used in this cool, multi-countries project to analyze data gathered from different telescopes.

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Talk by Michael Gully-Santiago on Applying Probabilistic Inference to Astronomical Spectroscopy

I listened to most of the talks on Astronomy and AstrophysicsAs I am particularly interested in exoplanets and building up knowledge on spectroscopy, I found the talks Applying Probabilistic Inference to Astronomical Spectroscopy by Michael Gully, Solving Spectroscopic Problems with Pythonic Workflows and Deep Learning by Kelvin Lee, and SunPy: Status of the Project and v1.0 Core Package by Monica Bobra very interesting.

While it is true that I did not understand many of the things in the talks that were too advanced for me but this is the benefit of a virtual conference. You can take a pause, skip some sections, or check on the internet to demystify some of the new things or terms you came across. I learned about Python packages being used in Astronomy to do atmospheric retrievals, eg Starfish, PySpecTools, and others. It has provided me with enough material to pursue my interests during the summer vacations and beyond.

I also attended some of the talks on Machine Learning and Geo and Atmospheric ScienceIn every case, the speakers were very knowledgeable about their subjects and most importantly they were passionate about sharing their knowledge.

Asking Questions and Connecting with Participants and Speakers

The format of the SciPy2020 was very well designed to make it possible to interact with speakers and ask them questions. Moderated Question and Answer sessions were scheduled during the conference to allow participants to ask questions after having watched the videos on the talks. These hour-long question and answer sessions were an excellent opportunity to raise questions in a very friendly manner. All the speakers made themselves available during these sessions and I benefited from having many of my questions answered.

The Slack channels remained active throughout the conference. The #Welcome channel allowed us to learn more about other participants and read about their research areas and the work they are currently doing. The #Announcement channel kept us updated on upcoming talks, tutorials, lightning talks, and question and answer sessions.

I was able to share my research interests in the welcome message (on Machine Learning and Astronomy) and connect with some other speakers to get more information about their work.

 

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Talk by Kelvin Lee Solving Spectroscopic Problems with Pythonic Workflows and Deep Learning

Delivering a Lightning Talk at the SciPy2020

The #Announcement Slack channel was where I learned about the “Call for Participation” in the Lightning Talks. I signed up at the last minute to talk about the use of Machine Learning to Remove Noise from Stellar Spots in Exoplanetary Data from Space Telescopes. This is the project I had been working on for the last few months using Python (Tensorflow and Keras).

I was very pleasantly surprised to receive a message from David Nicholson with a Slot to make my lightning talk. It was my first time to give a virtual talk on a Python-related event. But I was confident as I knew every part of the project I was going to talk about. My talk went off very well. And I valued the encouragement and feedback I got from the audience.

Thank you David and Kristen for your support, encouragement, and for making my participation in Lightning Talks at SciPy2020 possible.

I enjoyed listening to all the other lightning talks too. It was definitely one of my favorite parts of the conference as it gave me a flavor of diverse areas to which Python is being applied and the people who are applying it.

Looking forward to SciPy 2021: Hope it is in a Hybrid Mode!

I very much valued the participation in SciPy2020 Virtual Conference. It is very unlikely I would have participated in the conference if it was not held virtually. I very much hope that future conferences would be in Hybrid Mode – having both physical and strong online component to enable wider participation by lowering barriers to entry.

A big thanks to the organization team who put in many months of effort to make this global event possible. You have created a friendly community for those interested in the scientific application of Python and that welcomes everyone.

I look forward to participating, volunteering, and presenting my new projects in SciPy2021.


Follow me on GitHub: https://github.com/Artash-N

Twitter: www.twitter.com/wonrobot

 

 

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