VCU Data Science Lab wins inaugural National Institutes of Health award for promoting trust in research

May 7, 2024
Exterior of Cabell Library
The VCU Data Science Lab won an inaugural Rigor Champions Prize from the NIH.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Data Science Lab has won an inaugural award from the National Institutes of Health for cultivating a culture of robust, high-quality research in neuroscience.

Founded in 2016, the lab supports what the NIH cites as two cornerstones of science advancement: rigor in designing and performing research, and the ability to reproduce biomedical research findings. The lab aims to make rigor and reproducibility an approachable process, and more than 1,000 VCU researchers and trainees have used its tools, methods and training programs to improve the transparency and reproducibility of their work on campus.

“Transparent, reproducible, well-documented methods aren’t just for big data or high-powered computing,” said Nina Exner, Ph.D., research data librarian at VCU Libraries and associate professor of  scholarly communications and publishing. “Any researcher can benefit from good data management throughout their design and analysis. Data science is for everyone.”

In March, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a unit of the NIH, awarded the VCU Data Science Lab an inaugural Rigor Champions Prize. The new program recognizes individuals and small teams that have championed rigor and transparency practices that serve neuroscience research, and the lab was one of five honorees.

The lab is led by Timothy York, Ph.D., professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. York, Exner and Dana Lapato, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department, constitute the VCU team honored by the NIH.

“At this moment in time, public trust in research has likely never been more important,” said P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., VCU’s vice president for research and innovation. “Thanks to the efforts from the VCU Data Science Lab, there are numerous resources to ensure that the research conducted at VCU is both rigorous and transparent. Congratulations to the team for this honor, and I hope this award serves as a catalyst to further support the efficacy of our research. “

In its award notification, the NIH commended the lab for “providing universitywide courses, consultations, open educational materials, workshops, seminars and a ReproducibiliTea journal club that collectively addressed topics of open science, study preregistration, data science and reproducible computer programming.”

The Data Science Lab was founded by then-junior faculty members York and Aaron Wolen, Ph.D., who secured funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation to implement the Open Science Framework. The OSF allows investigators to preregister, organize and disseminate their research, and after the success of interactive OSF workshops, York and Wolen created a graduate-level data science course.

“Graduate students need to be taught the equivalent of basic lab skills for research computing,” York said. “We teach a modern computing workflow that follows best practices in open science, which encourages the sharing of research products. We feel that any researcher can adopt these recommendations to create more efficient data science workflows.”

With the course established, Lapato joined the Data Science Lab and co-founded a ReproducibiliTea journal club with Exner. The RTea club’s success led to creation of a formal journal club course dedicated to scientific rigor.

Through the efforts of the Data Science Lab team, rigor-based data science courses are now a requirement in three master’s and two Ph.D. programs at VCU. The courses fill up every semester, including with students who are not required to complete the courses for their degree programs.

By David Oglethorpe. This article first appeared in VCU News. 

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