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R Advent CalendarKiirsti Owen has drawn thousands of viewers to the website for her R Advent Calendar.

Biology grad student creates viral holiday coding guide

When Master’s student Kiirsti Owen was inspired to create an advent calendar teaching statistical software for her partner, she had no idea it would capture the imagination of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe.

“My partner had expressed an interest in learning how to use the programming language R,” explained Owen. “I decided to create an advent calendar, where each day would provide him with a little lesson on how to use the program.”

R is a programing language and statistical analysis package, which has become one of the most widespread software tools used by scientists.

“R can be really challenging to learn at first, which I think deters a lot of people from trying to learn how to use it,” Owen said. “I wanted to create a fun and easy way to learn the basics.”

She posted about the advent calendar on Twitter and it went viral. Within a few days, Owen’s tweet about the calendar had been viewed by more than a quarter of a million people, many of them asking for a copy of the guide, or offering to purchase it.

“I was very surprised by how excited people were about this,” said Owen. “I decided to make the guide freely available to the public.”

She posted the advent calendar on her website, and in the first 48 hours it has been visited by more than 10,000 people.

Now in the second year of her Master’s degree, Owen was a newcomer to the R programming language herself just a year ago.

“I learned how to use R this year, mostly through self-teaching and some informal workshops run by Rick Simpson, a post-doctoral fellow in Stéphanie Doucet’s lab,” she said. “Rick has been very helpful in teaching me some of the basics in R, so this is my way of paying it forward.”

Owen said that her biggest hope is that her guide might help turn people on to R: “By Christmas Day, anyone who is working through the R advent calendaR should finish with some basic skills and familiarity with the platform. The perfect gift for any scientist!”

Anyone can download and follow Owen’s “R Advent CalendaR.”