Hacky Hour


By Michaela Webb, NASA Space Grant Intern for CyVerse

Julian Pistorius, a CyVerse software engineer, observed three University of Arizona (UA) researchers talking at a table one night at Gentle Ben's Brewing Company near to campus. A linguist and a geophysical engineer were helping an optical engineer run MATLAB, a computer program for statistical analysis, on his laptop. "Serendipitous happy accidents happen when people interact with people they don't normally interact with," Pistorius said. "They see that there are other ways of approaching problems. This type of collaboration can lead to better, smarter, and faster research outcomes.”

Pistorius was observing Hacky Hour, a weekly event that brings together a lively and diverse group of scientists, computer scientists, data experts, and students to discuss their research problems and collaboratively tackle solutions. Discussions at last week’s event ranged from people’s hometowns, future aspirations, and politics, to visualizing division and growth of colon cancer cells using CyVerse technology, FASTA files, and past experiences in Aflatoxin research.

Hacky Hour, playfully named after “Happy Hour,” is an opportunity for scientists from different disciplines to discuss data and technology-related problems. PhTea is another weekly event with the same focus as Hacky Hour, but takes place in the mornings around cups of coffee and tea rather than beer.

Both events are part of Research Bazaar (ResBaz), an international group with the common goal of building a community surrounding research and digital literacy. The UA is only the second university in the nation, after the University of Oklahoma, to organize ResBaz events.

Pistorius, one of the organizers of ResBaz events at the UA, says that he began coordinating these events to address a growing need for collaboration and improved digital literacy among scientists. “There seems to be this huge outcry and need for that kind of help for researchers and grad students who are stuck, perhaps depressed by apparent barricades in their projects,” Pistorius said. “So far it seems like in the places where they’ve implemented Research Bazaar, it’s incredibly popular.”

Andreina Castillo, a postdoctoral researcher at the UA studying Plasmodium malarie, the parasite that causes malaria, said that she has been attending Hacky Hour most weeks since it began at the UA in May, 2016.

She says that although a researcher’s first instinct is often to tackle problems in isolation, “sometimes it’s good to just meet with people and brainstorm about how to solve your problem. It’s much more efficient.” Castillo keeps coming to Hacky Hour because it’s a low-stress and social venue for getting help with digital challenges and learning new digital skills. Hearing about other scientists’ projects and challenges gives her ideas for her own research, as well.

Although there are digital literacy experts at Hacky Hour and PhTea, Pistorius envisions that the events will create a long-term support community. “Instead of teaching one person at a time, what we’re doing is we’re planting a seed. Instead of people getting stuck and not knowing how to solve their problems, we can make sure that there’s someone nearby, potentially in the same building, who they can talk to,” Pistorius said. “We hope to start creating fertile ground for peer-to-peer education.”

The events are also a way to break down barriers between researchers in different fields, because the need to use digital tools for data is a unifying challenge. “We really are interested in connecting completely disparate departments and schools. It’s not just a biology thing – data is data and everyone is moving into computation,” said Blake Joyce, a science informatician at CyVerse and Pistorius’s partner in bringing Research Bazaar events to the UA. Both Pistorius and Joyce are excited by the cross-disciplinary collaborations they’ve seen.

The Research Bazaar events at UA also are a way for researchers working with CyVerse tools to get support. According to Pistorius, Hacky Hour and PhTea are filling an important niche for CyVerse: proactive user support. If a researcher has a specific problem, she can easily get help from the CyVerse help desk. Hacky Hour and PhTea come into play when researchers' problems are complicated enough that they don’t know how to frame them, or aren’t aware of what tools may be available to solve them.

Pistorius, Joyce and others are planning a much larger two-day Research Bazaar event to be held on the UA Mall this March. The free event will bring together researchers from around the nation to exchange knowledge and tackle digital problems.

Hacky Hour is every Thursday from 4-7 p.m. at Pasco Kitchen and Lounge located at Main Gate Square, 820 E University Blvd, Tucson, AZ 85719.

PhTea is Tuesday mornings from 8-10 a.m. at the Nucleus Café in the Keating building located at 1657 E Helen St, Tucson, AZ 85721.

Both events are free and open to everyone. Bring your digital challenges and a collaborative mindset. You can find ResBaz Arizona on twitter @resbazaz. If you have any questions about Hacky Hour or PhTea, please email resbazaz@gmail.com.