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Kiirsti Owen’s Gift to You: “25 Days of ChRistmas: An R Advent CalendaR”

Kiirsti Owen
Kiirsti Owen. Courtesy of Kiirsti Owen.

“On the first day of Christmas my true love (or some random person from the internet) gave to me…

…the weirdest advent calendar ever: a 25-day R tutorial!”

So begins what started out as a little holiday fun for one AAAS Member that has now become a run-away success among scientists: an advent calendar designed to teach the basics of a data analysis and visualization program called “R.”

R is a free software system for statistical computation and graphics, used for producing graphs and other visualizations of large datasets. Users must learn its programming language to code their own analysis and graphics from scratch.

“It is pretty challenging at first to learn the basics, so I think it turns a lot of people off or it is easy to put on the backburner and say ‘Oh, I’ll learn it someday,’” said Kiirsti Owen, the conservation biologist who designed the advent calendar.

While other software might make it easier to produce charts and graphs, R provides complete control and is adaptable to most any discipline working with large data sets.

Owen designed the advent calendar for her partner, a wildlife biologist who was interested in learning R for work, as a fun and easy way to get comfortable with the program through 25 mini lessons. But when she posted about her project on Twitter, many asked her to share it publicly, even offering to pay for it.

She doesn’t know how many people have downloaded the files from Google Drive, but more than 25,000 people have visited her website since she posted the link to the calendar on November 30. The original Twitter post has been liked more than 2,700 times and shared more than 1,300 times.

“I was quite blown away,” Owen said. “I had no idea that there were so many people out there who were excited to learn R and excited to do it in this fun way and follow along.”

While aimed at researchers who will find R useful for their work, anyone who wants to participate can download the 25 text files and holiday-themed data sets. Each lesson takes 5 to 10 minutes, and are peppered with humorous insights, such as the following:

“***R fun fact: the c in c() stands for “concatenate” or ‘to link together’. You can save that one for parties with other R nerds. You’re welcome.”

Owen also offers helpful troubleshooting tips on her website, and another R user, Ohio-based biochemist Jason Winget, independently created YouTube videos for each of Owen’s lesson and is sharing them daily on Twitter.

Owen, a graduate student at the University of Windsor in Ontario, uses R most days for her conservation research. She is currently using animal sounds, or bioacoustics, to study bird species richness, diversity and abundance in dry tropical forests in Costa Rica at different phases of restoration. She taught herself R over the past year with the help of a friend and online tutorials so she could analyze her data. Now, she finds she really enjoys sifting through the data, finding patterns and presenting them visually.

Making the advent calendar took time and a lot of creativity. Owen wanted to make sure it covered the essentials, such as basic math computations, loading data and producing simple graphs. She adapted a pre-loaded dataset for cars to sleighs; for example, horsepower became deerpower. Coming up with 30 sleigh names was perhaps one of the most time-consuming parts, she said. 

When she first posted the calendar publicly, Owen was nervous.

“I only just learned these things a year ago,” she said. “Am I good enough to be teaching other people how to learn R?”

But being a relatively new user was actually an advantage. While online tutorials produced by R experts can still be daunting, she could see that Day 1 should start with the ultimate first step: how to download R.

After others had tested it out, providing only positive feedback on social media, her nerves dissipated.

“Learning and teaching can be fun, and you don’t necessarily have to be in the field for decades to be able to do that,” she said. “You can be someone who just learned something, and you can teach others.”

Social media was an ideal platform to do just that, enabling her to reach thousands of people. Owen’s Twitter following more than tripled to nearly 2,000 after sharing the advent calendar – something she still can’t quite believe. Having been an active Twitter user for many years, she suspects that this post was so popular because it was fun, different and benefited a wide variety of scientists.

A native of British Columbia with a passion for the outdoors, she invites anyone interested in supporting the advent calendar project to donate to WildResearch, a nonprofit based in Vancouver that trains citizen scientists. She serves on the board of directors, and notes that the WildResearch bird banding station was how she got her start in the field of conservation biology. Regardless of donations, she is amazed and thrilled so many people have enjoyed the R advent calendar coding experience.

“What I learned coming away from this,” Owen said, “is that as a scientific community, we have a lot to gain from supporting each other and helping each other out.”