“Having all these people together, sharing the same mindset, and the chance to talk with them is an opportunity you wouldn’t simply find by attending school, going to classes and participating in club meetings.” – Aashika Vishwanath, CIS’26

As the 2024 Women in Data Science Conference (WiDS) opened with tours and a storytelling workshop at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, a journey as old as time unfolded for attendees. Led through galleries that included items from a lost queen of Persia to ancient Mayan glyphs, first translated in the early 20th-century by a trailblazing female archaeologist, professionals from across the country discovered the deep contributions made by women to the story of humanity. 

With auxiliary events and a speaker series that buzzed with an electrifying sense of purpose, the conference continues to set a benchmark for diversity, innovation, and academic discourse in the field of data science. 

Conference attendees kick off the two-day event in the Penn Museum’s Scythian galleries. (Image: Kyle Kearns)

Wharton and Penn Engineering students participated throughout the two-day event, including Aashika Vishwanath, CIS’26, who is president of the Wharton Undergraduate Data Analytics Club and also a senior data science consultant at Wharton Analytics Fellows, shared her work developing an AI-powered teaching assistant. Immediately after her panel discussion concluded, potential collaborators on future projects approach. “I was able to ask them questions about their work and experiences as well,” she says. “Having all these people together, sharing the same mindset, and the chance to talk with them is an opportunity you wouldn’t simply find by attending school, going to classes and participating in club meetings.”

Vishwanath’s sentiment rang true for attending Wharton faculty. “This is the first time I’ve been in a room with so many women,” said Wharton Professor of Operations Lynn Wu, who spoke on the effects of banning generative artificial intelligence-created content in online question-and-answer communities. 

Thoughtful conversations, spirited debate

This conference remains an important national touchpoint that unites data scientists from across disciplines and divides to emphasize the long-standing, yet often unacknowledged, role of women in shaping the world’s data landscapes. Director of Marketing and Communications at Analytics at Wharton, Jillian Rogers, notes that the annual event holds a special place in the hearts of returning data scientists and students alike. 

Wharton’s Lynn Wu, Associate Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions presents on the “double-edged sword” of banning gen AI in online communities. (Image: Lamont Abrams)

For many of the attendees, it’s often the case that they are one of a few women or the only woman in a conference room, classroom, board room, etc.,” said Rogers. “It’s a powerful feeling to come to WiDS and sit in a room of 150 people that are majority female.” 

Central to the conference’s agenda was the dialogue around generative AI and its implications across various fields. The conversation between Wharton’s professors Hamsa Bastani and Lilach Mollick, Microsoft’s Heather Danforth, and Computer Science Professor at Penn Susan Davidson captured the audience’s attention with its depth and dynamism. In particular, their discussion on the impact of generative AI in their respective domains resonated strongly with the data-centric ethos of Wharton and Penn Engineering.

The spirited debate between Mollick and Davidson proved a standout moment from that conversation. Mollick, a proponent of integrating generative AI in educational settings, argued that this technology will revolutionize classroom learning, enhance student engagement, and personalize educational experiences. In contrast, Davidson raised critical questions about the ethical implications and potential biases inherent in AI systems, cautioning against unchecked adoption in educational contexts. 

Davidson (left) and Mollick engage in a panel discussion on the impact of generative AI in the classroom. (Image: Lamont Abrams)

“Some of my homework questions should take a student at least ten hours to complete,” noted Davidson. “Should we really claim that students can learn just as well by inputting the question into ChatGPT and getting a perfect answer in less than ten seconds?” 

“Well, academia has adjusted before and it will do it again,” Mollick responded, rounding out the discussion with additional historical examples of past structural changes in pedagogy, confident that academia can pivot and adapt as new tech continues to power the world.

Community moments that will resonate near and far

While this exchange highlighted the diverse perspectives found within the data science field, it also underlined the importance of critical thinking and ethical considerations in data science, a skill that remains paramount in any Wharton education.

The conference’s broader impact on students and the Penn community was multifaceted. For current students, it provided an invaluable opportunity to engage with leading minds in data science, broadening their understanding and sparking new interests. Prospective students gained a glimpse into the vibrant intellectual culture that Wharton and Penn Engineering foster, one that encourages challenging established norms and driving innovation.

Day two of the conference featured a packed floor in Huntsman Hall. (Image: Lamont Abrams)

More than just a series of talks and debates, the Women in Data Science Conference remains a confluence of ideas, a celebration of diversity, and a testament to the transformative power of data science. For attending Wharton students and faculty, the conference reiterates the School’s commitment to ongoing leadership at the forefront of data science education and research. 

As the reach of this conference continues to expand, so will its role as a space where the voices of women in data science are not just heard, but also celebrated, and where their contributions are recognized as vital to the advancement of their shared field.

– Grace Meredith

Posted: March 1, 2024

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