Fellow Feature: Serena Defina 

25 Apr 2024 - 5 min

Every year, the Netherlands eScience Center shares a call for applications for our Fellowship Programme. The Programme is aimed at members of the academic research community who are passionate about acting as ambassadors for the use of research software. It is for individuals who have the ambition to promote or improve the use of research software within their organization or discipline. Our 2023 fellows are currently working their way through their fellowship year. What better time to showcase their progress over the course of their programme.  

We will present you with interviews with each of the 14 Fellows. From creating tutorials to organizing interactive seminars, our Fellows are at the forefront of shaping the landscape of research software practices. 

In the next interview, you will read about eScience Center Fellow and doctoral student at Erasmus MC, Serena Defina, who is working on a project that seeks to build a user-friendly data dictionary web app for epidemiological and bio-medical researchers.  

Q: Could you tell me what role research software plays in your daily activities?  

A: If coffee is the fuel of academia, I would say the research software is the engine. I personally use or work on some form of software every day, for example, to explore, analyze, and visualize biomedical data, spanning from genomics to neuroimaging, from mental health to pollution, and much more. 

Q: What initially inspired you to apply to the Fellowship Programme at the eScience Center?  

A: I noticed how both my colleagues and I were wasting considerable time on tasks that could have been automated or simplified, preventing unnecessary errors and frustrations. Therefore, I was motivated to build a solution for this problem, but I had a lot of learning and thinking to do. The Fellowship Programme felt like the perfect opportunity to do so, and it was! 

Q: How is your fellowship helping you to promote the use of research software in your own community?  

A: I have learned many things, especially about best practices around software and data, which really empowered me to become a (baby) ambassador for FAIR principles, use software and data literacy, and more broadly, open science in my department. I also made FAIR to fund a new research software engineering group to support and educate researchers about these topics. 

Q: What have you enjoyed, thus far, during your fellowship at the eScience Center?   

A: I am genuinely so happy with how much I have learned over this time! Of course, thanks to my mentor for the supervision and the discussions among interest group participants. I also enjoyed simply chatting with the other Fellows. I feel like I became part of a community, which is undoubtedly the biggest highlight of the experience. 

Q: What are some challenges that you have faced throughout your project thus far? How have you overcome these obstacles?  

A: The main challenge was allocating time for working on the Fellowship project while still pursuing a separate, full-time PhD trajectory and maintaining a sustainable work-life balance. I think a successful step towards overcoming this was convincing my institution to let me dedicate half of my time in order to develop this and other research software. 

Q: Keeping this project in mind, what do you hope to do after your Fellowship?  

A:  I am very happy to be able to continue working for my institution after my PhD as a “Research Software Engineer / Data Scientist”. In this new position, I will be leading the development of software tools for biomedical data analysis and continuing to support other researchers and their analyses. 

Q: What do you hope will change in the use of research software in your community after your fellowship?  

A: I am happy that the application we developed is already saving valuable research time, and has inspired other departments to pursue similar goals, so I hope this project will continue evolving and, hopefully, improving research. I also believe that, following the initiative of their younger colleagues, more and more senior researchers will embrace and support the importance of software quality and reproducibility. 

Who are we?  

The eScience Center is a research organization dedicated to applying research software to answer research questions in any scientific domain through project collaborations. It has the largest concentration of dedicated, high-level research software expertise in the Netherlands. The eScience Center also has a fellowship programme and makes all of its software and training materials openly available online. For more information about what we offer, visit esciencecenter.nl.