How just 4 days of workshops at GC DRI re-defined my research

By Carly Batist, 2nd-year Biological Anthropology Ph.D. student

I am a first-year Biological Anthropology PhD student, studying the behavior, social structure, and communication of wild black-and-white ruffed lemurs in Madagascar. When I first heard about the Graduate Center’s Digital Research Institute, I was in the midst of attempting dynamic social network analysis (which probably makes about as much sense to you as it did to me then). I had taken a few biostatistics courses in the past, which used R as their default software, but most of the network analysis code that I was reading about was Python and was stored in a magical place called Github. It thus seemed too good to be true that the GC was offering a 4-day intensive workshop that would cover these very programs and more. Little did I know how influential this week would be in re-defining my research questions and methodology.

The DRI is set up to provide you with a basic overview and fundamental knowledge of various programming languages and data analysis/visualization software (e.g., Git/Github, HTML & CSS, Python, machine learning, text analysis, SQL, GIS, Omeka). The Digital Fellows who lead these various workshops take you through activities designed to give you a baseline understanding of the language/software syntax, how to troubleshoot, and the vast array of functions available. The DRI also presents resources available to you throughout the academic year so that you can further what you’ve learned in the workshops as you move forward with your own research projects. These include workshops, Digital Fellows office hours, and other centers such as the Center for Humanities & the New Media Lab. I had not known that many of these events and resources existed, so being presented with these options was one of the important take-aways I got from the Institute.

Another important take-away was the interdisciplinary nature of the research being conducted by participants in the Institute. We ranged from Accounting to English to Anthropology and were able to see how our vastly different research questions could be answered using similar methods in these new programming languages and softwares. For example, the machine learning workshop gave me an entirely new perspective on how to use and analyze my camera trap data. Camera traps are motion-triggered cameras that can be set up in a forest to detect the presence of a particular species, track movement patterns, and identify unique behaviors that may not be possible through human observation. I was talking with Lisa Rhody, the Deputy Director of Digital Initiatives, about how machine learning was being used in fields such as computer science for facial recognition, and art history for identification of paintings. I then discovered a group of scientists who are using machine learning to analyze camera trap data by training the computer to recognize which photos have “x” species, which have “y” species, and which are false positives (i.e., a leaf triggered the photo). This saves an immense amount of time going through each photo and is yet another novel use of the same code to analyze data in another research field.

Every workshop in the DRI gave me new ideas about my own research: the GIS workshop got me thinking about mapping the lemur home ranges and movement patterns, the Databases workshop (SQL) taught me how to think about setting up my data in the most efficient way for analysis, the machine learning workshop gave me a way to analyze camera trap data, and the Python workshop gave me a way to understand the network analysis code that had initially prompted me to apply to this workshop in the first place. I cannot stress enough the insightful skills I learned during this Institute and would recommend it to literally anyone, in any major, across the CUNY system. In the digital age we are currently living in, the more technical skills you know, the better. This Institute provides an introduction to the digital resources available to you and how to apply these to your research studies in creative and innovative ways. In just 4 days, my approach to my dissertation research was completely re-organized, and I now cannot wait to use what I’ve learned in the DRI in my lemur studies.