Our Researcher Spotlight Series profiles DataLab affiliated faculty, staff, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars across disciplines to demonstrate the diversity of our community and highlight their amazing work.

Nistara Randhawa, Data Scientist with UC Davis Grand Challenges

Nistara Randhawa is a Data Scientist with UC Davis Grand Challenges who has been affiliated with DataLab since she was a PhD Candidate. Inspired by her childhood passion for animals and the environment, she started out as a veterinarian who now utilizes computational methods to solve problems that occur at the intersection of animal, human, and environmental health, especially those that affect wildlife health and conservation.

I wear many hats and dip into different skillsets as and when I need them: animal health, infectious disease epidemiology, One Health, data science, and data visualization.

During pursuit of her PhD in Epidemiology at UC Davis, Nistara realized that she could cultivate data science skills and utilize them outside a clinical setting while still making a positive impact on animal and human health. Her journey with data science, she says, was “sparked” by a GIS lecture she attended, which encouraged her to pursue other courses that showed her not only how to use the R programming language for research, but also introduced her to skills like shell scripting, version control, and data visualization. She credits a course she took with Professor Duncan Temple Lang for introducing her to the key skills in statistical computing that she now relies on for her work. She has since used a wide range of computational tools and methods to analyze a variety of data, from GPS tracks of straw-colored fruit bats in Tanzania to GIS data for the construction of large geospatial networks in Africa. She has also just finished a project about the online trade in the painted woolly bat, which sees these Asian-origin bats sold to United States customers on the internet.  “I wear many hats and dip into different skillsets as and when I need them: animal health, infectious disease epidemiology, One Health, data science, and data visualization,” she says.

“My journey is a mixture of seeking out interesting topics and tools while finding some by chance, exploring them via workshops, courses, and online resources, and cultivating side interests which lead to subsequent main projects. I’ve been lucky to find great mentors to show the way when I need it,” Nistara outlines. She credits this combination of curiosity and chance for leading her to her current research, which concerns virus ranking based on risk of spillover from wildlife to humans and has important global health implications. “We are building on the current spillover application to help prioritize vaccine libraries in preparation against future epidemic and pandemic threats,” she says. “I’m also hopeful that our online bat trade study will contribute to the conservation of painted woolly bats by shedding light on their online trade and supporting their tracking under CITES.” 

Ultimately, Nistara’s work demonstrates the value of data science for a variety of fields and purposes. She notes that data science “feels like a computational bridge connecting different fields and disciplines,” which allows for the possibility of working with many different types and amounts of data; she says that it also “opens up research opportunities that I never could have conceived when I first started my journey.” The ability to collaborate, to share programs and tools, and participate in workshops also help her keep her research momentum–as do those moments when she can be out in nature, kayaking or photographing wildlife, which she says “both rejuvenates my mind and reinforces the connection between my passion and my work.”