Georgios Orfanakis joined the Data Lab MSc placement programme in May 2020, while undertaking his course in Data Science at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University (RGU). When the global pandemic struck, RGU moved its courses online and Georgios returned to his native Greece to complete his studies.
The pandemic lockdown meant that he had to complete his 12-week placement with Marine Scotland, completely remotely, a situation which brought challenges, but which has also reaped benefits.
What made you decide to join The Data Lab MSc Programme?
My initial interest was in the field of biology. I have an integrated Masters in biology, and a Masters in biotechnology, both from the University of Ioannina in Greece. I went to work in industry for a private company as a laboratory biologist. This current degree is the next step in my career.
As part of my earlier studies and work experience, I came across a lot of data and I started to become really interested in data management; one thing led to another and I started coding. At that point I thought it would be a good time for me to do something new and to go further with what I like and with the knowledge I already had. I applied for several programmes and was accepted for RGU and some other universities in Scotland. I accepted the offer to go to RGU and it was then that I learned about The Data Lab MSc Programme which includes placement opportunities for students.
While doing my MSc I wanted to keep an open mind about the placement opportunities which might come up and the challenges they would offer. When this placement came up, to create a zooplankton database which could link to data collection platforms to retrieve existing data, I accepted it. Although my principal interest is in data science, the fact that I have a biology background helped me to get to grips with it much faster. The placement was a good combination of everything I had done in the past and was doing now.
Tell us more about your placement
My placement was focused on bringing together zooplankton data, collected over several decades by samplers and sensors, into a central database. This required me to transform the data gathered from a variety of projects and monitoring programmes, into an agreed model, and to develop tools that could be used to support data extraction and analysis in the future.
By the end of the project, data from 57 surveys had been imported into this database providing much more efficient access to more than 215,000 samples and more than 18 million results.
The most difficult part of working completely remotely was not being able to physically work alongside someone who could explain anything that you might not understand. Being able to have that direct contact is really important but the people at Marine Scotland were extremely helpful throughout the whole placement, especially Jens Rasmussen my placement supervisor.
Generally, these placements don’t require the student to be there in person five days a week, but the weekly face to face meetings that normally take place would have helped. Other than that, I can’t say I had any real problems working remotely – other than the actual difficulty of the project but that would have been the same regardless of whether I was working in Scotland or not.
Obviously, the quarantine situation and the whole remote process made it a bit more difficult to enjoy the actual experience of doing a placement, but in terms of what I did and the cooperation which existed, I enjoyed it. It was a very helpful experience, especially to see at first-hand how things work in industry.
Regarding the work I did, I think the requirement to create a database which would fit in with what Marine Scotland was working on was a success. In terms of academic research, I also created an alternative data base and linked the databases to the various platforms which retrieve data.
Marine Scotland will now use both databases to access data which they can use in their research in the seas around Scotland. They hold data spanning 30 years, which can now be retrieved from one source. They will also be able to compare it to older data which they have on hand, because they have data going back to the beginning of the 19th century, they just haven’t digitalised it yet. Clearly the database might change as things progress, but it will be the foundation for what happens in the future.
Where are you now?
I’m back in Greece and I’m now open to whatever comes along whether that be more studies or industry. I would like to go back into industry for the next couple of years, but I’m interested in both fields, so it will depend on what is on offer. I have a lot of academic experience now and I’m looking for something which will really interest me. There are many things which interest me but at the moment I’m drawn to something which might be related to health or population data.
There was one main advantage to working remotely if I have a job interview, the fact that I worked completely remotely in industry during my placement will be an asset. As things stand, more and more of these types of jobs will be carried out remotely regardless of the pandemic.
It is inevitable that working conditions are going to change as we rely more on computers in our lives. Because of this crisis, things have developed faster, and we see more companies moving towards remote work. Having done this already is an asset in terms of my CV.
Would you recommend The Data Lab MSc Programme?
I would definitely recommend both The Data Lab and RGU. RGU did a really good job on the educational side and The Data Lab placement was a great experience. The combination of both education and industry is something that people don’t get the chance to experience that often.
Getting the opportunity to do an MSc in Data Science and the fact that The Data Lab makes it possible was very good and I would recommend it to anyone.
The experience has confirmed that I know this is field I want to get into. Because of the current Covid situation it may take me longer to get into it and to really establish myself, but I’m pretty sure it’s what I want to be doing with my life for at least the next decade. I would like to thank The Data Lab and Marine Scotland for giving me this opportunity and for their help throughout this process.
Professor Colin Moffat, Chief Scientific Advisor Marine, said:
We are delighted with the results of this project which has seen substantial parts of archive plankton data transferred into a comprehensive database which can be searched and filtered by staff.
The workflow of sampling and analysis marine plankton can be quite complex so typically we would meet the student for at least a few days and walk through the process. However, given the circumstances this year the project was run remotely, and we had to send images, reports and information topic sheets instead and make sure Georgios was supported though regular contact.
Much of the data involved was from projects which involved staff who have retired or moved so it was important to capture this in a well-structured and accessible format. Georgios worked exceptionally well with our analytical and data management colleagues to plan out a flexible data model which we will be able to use to help monitor the status of zooplankton, an absolutely fundamental component of marine food webs, and for research and assessments, for years to come.
The Data Lab is an excellent opportunity for students to get on the job training, and for organisations to benefit from new and fresh approaches.