Code Red (for Ruby)

For anybody who knows me, it should come as no surprise that I was a very nerdy kid. But I didn’t love science back then; I loved computers. When I was in elementary school, I built my first, very primitive website using a WYSIWYG editor. This site had a black background and fluorescent green text, and was an atrocious mess of animated GIFs and obnoxious MIDIs. My second site, created a few years later, was only slightly more sophisticated – I remember being proud of how I had figured out how to layer a frame over an image map by poking at the HTML. Totally awesome. Of course, this site was as cringeworthy as the first, and thankfully neither of them exist on the web anymore.

I continued to dabble with website design as I grew older. I was commissioned by a teacher in middle school to redesign the school’s webpage with Dreamweaver. Then, in high school, I finally took a stab at actually learning some HTML, and made a decent-looking website for a band I was in.

After high school, my computer geekery was overtaken by my studies (and interest) in neuroscience. Web design became a forgotten hobby of mine… until I joined a tech startup, Altmetric. Now, for work, I sometimes need to edit and design pages for our website. Additionally, being in a technology environment has exposed me to computer geekery in a big way. But I am not a developer. And I don’t actually know how to code.

A few weeks ago, my friend Jutta (who works in the same office) told me about an interesting (and free) two-day coding workshop for women called Rails Girls London. As part of the workshop, students would receive training from skilled coaches in Ruby on Rails. Students would even leave the workshop having designed their first Ruby on Rails web app. It sounded amazing, so I applied to the workshop and secured a spot.

And so, two weekends ago, I attended Rails Girls London (see their Twitter feed), which was hosted at the extremely cool Skype headquarters in Holborn. The first part of the workshop (on the Friday night) was an “installation party”, during which we set up our laptops with the necessary software packages and hung out with coaches and fellow students.

On the next morning, the serious stuff began. We worked through the basics of Ruby using an online tutorial before jumping right into setting up a generic web app with the help of the coaches, who tirelessly guided 2 students at a time.

Later on, after we had gotten a handle on the structure of the generic app, we had the opportunity to work on an app of our own design. By the end of the workshop, I had put together an app that could automatically place London locations on a Google Map. I had a simple interface that could be used to recreate my London Science Map more efficiently. (I aim to link to it from the London Science Map page once I get the chance to prettify the app a bit…)

I learned a lot in just one day. I learned the basics of Ruby (neat). And importantly, I learned about some of the terms and concepts that my developer co-workers use every day (awesome), and which had previously been mysterious to me. What’s more, the workshop was really fun, and I was able to meet many cool, smart, and like-minded women from different backgrounds, including computer science, finance, science, and more. Like the other students, I resolved to continue to practice and develop my still-rudimentary coding skills.

A hug from the students and coaches at the Rails Girls London workshop on 5 October 2013. Photo courtesy of John Beynon (@johnbeynon).

A hug from the students and coaches at the Rails Girls London workshop on 5 October 2013. Photo courtesy of John Beynon (@johnbeynon).

The thing is, we’re pretty lucky in London, if not only because women have the opportunity to attend a workshop like Rails Girls. (I highly recommend the Rails Girls London workshop and any associated events, in case that wasn’t obvious from the rest of this post!) Also, there appears to be quite an active community of Ruby enthusiasts (even beyond Rails Girls). Along with the numerous free resources online, there seems to be no shortage of opportunities to learn more about Ruby.

Having trained as a bench scientist in auditory neuroscience and then in pain pharmacology, I’m naturally more comfortable with light microscopes and oscilloscopes than I am with command lines and Ruby gems. But computers are incredibly important tools for science, society, and everything in between. It seems to me that it would be massively useful for scientists to be able to put computers to work in user-personalised ways; ways that may be more meaningful than what can currently be accomplished with the usual software packages. In the life sciences, coding is not a skill that is often developed in undergraduate or graduate studies, unless one happens to be working in bioinformatics. So I wonder what kinds of things I would have thought to build if I had had some programming know-how as a grad student.

Even though I’ve now left the lab, there are plenty of reasons to learn to code. I think I’ll try to embrace computer geekery again. Let’s see what happens.

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