Getting to know your 2021 RSE Fellows — Heather Turner

This week we’re introducing Heather Turner from the University of Warwick! Read about her background and fellowship plans here.

Heather Turner – Increasing Sustainability and EDI (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion) in the R Project

I have spent my career developing code and software for researchers, primarily in the social and life sciences; first in academia, then in industry, and for the past ten years as a freelance consultant. In my work, I have mostly used the statistical software R and over time, I have become more involved as a community organizer in the community of R users and developers.

With the EPSRC RSE Fellowship I am returning to academia as a Research Software Engineer, taking on a project that brings together software development and community-building.

My 5-year fellowship will focus on increasing sustainability and EDI (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion) in the R Project. Like many large-scale research software projects, R relies heavily on the research community for maintenance and development. Traditional career paths and funding models have given little space for investment in sustainability or EDI. As it stands, the diversity that can be seen in the R community at large is not reflected in the R core team. In addition, many core developers are past or near retirement, so there is a need to bring in new contributors.

I will demonstrate the role that Research Software Engineers can play in making large-scale research software projects more sustainable and inclusive, with R as the case in point.

Firstly, I will take time to expand my personal contributions to R core development. With an eye on sustainability, I will aim to contribute where help is most needed, triaging bug reports and collaborating with R core developers to implement items on their To-Do lists. I will also support the maintenance of critical packages where existing maintainers are looking to pass on their responsibilities.

Secondly, I will contribute to the technical infrastructure – the documentation, tools and processes used in core development. Here, the objective will be to demystify the work of the R core team and to make it easier for new contributors to get involved. This will particularly benefit people from groups that are under-represented in the developer community, since they are less likely to have had strong connections to experienced contributors who they can learn from.

Finally, I will engage in a range of community engagement activities, from ad-hoc support on Slack to organized developer sprints. The experience that I gain through contributing to code and infrastructure will enable me to scope opportunities for new contributors and to pass on expertise through training and mentoring.

The overriding objective of my project will be to create an open and welcoming environment that encourages participation, especially by people from under-represented groups. This will require working as collaboratively as possible, particularly with community organizations such as R-Ladies and Minorities in R.

My fellowship will be hosted by the Statistics department at the University of Warwick, where I will complement my contributions to the R project with more regular activities of a university-based RSE. Within the department, I will continue to develop my own portfolio of statistical modelling packages and support students and staff in using R to develop research software. I will also partner with the Scientific Computing Research Technology Platform, a centralised team that provides RSE support across Warwick, expanding their existing services to cover R and data science. I am joining a growing community of RSEs at Warwick and we will work together to raise the profile of Research Software Engineering across the university.

Like many RSEs, my role will be multi-faceted, with many stakeholders involved. This represents quite a challenge, but demonstrates the broad benefits that RSEs can bring. As part of my fellowship, I hope to encourage fellow RSEs to get more involved in core contribution, i.e., contributing to the code, infrastructure and outreach of core software projects that underpin so much of our specialised research code. Of course, with the RSE fellowship, I am fortunate to be directly funded to work on this in the case of R. However, I think that many RSEs could incorporate some element of core contribution into their existing roles. In addition, the work of the RSE Society and the changing vision of research funding bodies has led to more funding opportunities to support such work: aside from the RSE fellowships, there are also the new EPSRC Open Plus Fellowships and the EPSRC Software for Research Communities grants, for example. So I think the RSE community is already embracing its role in supporting research software infrastructure and my fellowship is a part of that movement.

About the author: abrown