Bioinformatics Hub of Kenya Initiative Seminar Series
The BHKi seminar series was a hybrid event that happened on July 19 and 20. After two years of online conferences and learning, we were glad to hold this two-day seminar physically. This was the second physical event BHKi held since our launch in 2019.
Around the globe, researchers and students are big on physical meetings because they get to not only share knowledge but also commune over meals and great conversations that create meaningful networks. Therefore this physical seminar was definitely a welcome experience for many of our participants and members.
Our target audience for the seminar was researchers and students who had either just begun their research projects or were actively working on them with the main aim of providing a space for all conversations from technical down to the things we don’t hear often. The agenda involved everything -omics, research data management skills, project planning, soft skills, and a crucial touch point; mental health in academia.
On day one we set out to illuminate a big picture of research organization beginning with what it is in general and then zooming in on its specifics. We included everything a researcher should think about pre-research i.e. project management, communication, and student-supervisor relationships. Owing to the number of curious questions we received during sessions on day one, we realized that many of our participants were adept at resources such as GitHub, JupyterLab, Rstudio, and other analysis tools but lacked proficiency in project pre-registration on platforms such as Open Science Framework (OSF). We also had sessions where our participants were introduced to FAIR data principles and data sharing platforms such as dataverse.
Day one concluded with what we believe was the biggest success and most interesting topic of the seminar; mental health in research, with emphasis on the student-supervisor relationship. Mental health, although not a new concern, has become increasingly imperative to discuss especially in recent years. We have seen the global North and West spearhead such discussions and while in our region these discussions are scanty, refreshing candor from a majority of our participants was a testament to the need to prioritize students’ mental health. This was a really engaging session with participants opening up about anxiety, burnout, and depression. They confessed to rarely having understanding peers to talk about this with and found it difficult to approach their supervisors for fear of breaching the professionalism boundary. Additionally, they stated that a big hurdle they face is one-sided conversations when they bring up concerns about their grappling mental health to their supervisors implying that their supervisors rarely attended such meetings or talks. Participants expressed interest in the Hub organizing a follow-up talk in the presence of some supervisors as representatives.
Amidst all the positivity, we had a small hiccup. Since our inception and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we had held numerous virtual meetings but we never experienced a zoom bomber. This was a learning moment for our team; to encourage event registrations instead of publicly sharing zoom links, and to execute more stringent measures during hybrid and online events in the future.
The last day of the seminar was scheduled for open science, omics breakout sessions, and science communication. Our participants showed adequate familiarity with open science and particular comfortability with sharing knowledge, however, due to its nascent character, they had reservations about its adoption. With regards to open data and code, concerns about the feasibility of some studies as well as fears around ‘scooping’ were raised and these two are big challenges to the practice of open science even in aware communities. Open access is embraced, and this came out clearly as we talked about publishing, what researchers need to do to publish, the cost of publishing, journals that embrace open access, especially those that publish research in native African languages, and more. Yet still more questions remained unanswered; why is open access more embraced and trusted compared to open data in our region? How can open data concerns be navigated to bring its level of embrace to par with open science? We have a long way to go.
We then later held breakout sessions dubbed “my omic of interest”. This session’s goal was to allow participants to share individual experiences while working with different omic technologies. Here we grouped our participants based on interest or -omics areas they are working on and allowed them to customize topics they found interesting to discuss. Because our participants were from diverse institutions and areas of expertise, this session was very enriching for experts and beginners alike. Some of the topics shared included; challenges faced when working with data particularly when new to computation, connecting biology and computation, limited computational resources and how to navigate it, and common hacks for working with specific omic data.
For the final session of the seminar, we saw it prudent to include science communication. The aim of science or research is to make an impact and solve a problem and our participants work on projects that answer important questions in the agricultural industry, health sector, and more. It is therefore vital that they are equipped with skills on how to communicate their findings to end users that may be interested in them. Knowledge of science communication is rarely offered in the course curriculum and our speaker Peter Emmrich led an eye-opening discussion that emphasized the need to simplify very technical research by embracing storytelling.
In conclusion, we had a wholesome seminar; educative, engaging, and fun. One of our participants had this to say: “It was a wonderful opportunity to learn from peers and experts who are more experienced and have extensive information relevant to bioinformatics by attending the Bioinformatics hub of Kenya seminar at ICIPE. I learned a variety of things about writing manuscripts and publishing, data management strategies, speaking science, and the science of the Omics in general from the various presenters and sessions which are relevant for my studies as a bioinformatics candidate. I salute the planning committee and anticipate further conversations in open science.” Another participant said, “I had a great time during the two-day BHKi seminar. The sessions were very insightful and interactive. All the speakers spoke eloquently, and their pragmatism made each session awesome. I look forward to attending more seminars, training, and courses with you guys in the future and have been recommending it to my colleagues. Thank you for giving me the opportunity !!”
At present, the biggest takehome was; that squarely addressing the relationship between students and supervisors is essential for students’ success and we plan on holding more sessions to discuss this in depth. We also plan on tailoring future seminars around our participants’ and members’ concerns while maintaining a deep awareness of the needs of the times. The OBF fund allowed us to hold an experiential event that not only provided an avenue for crucial discussions but also allowed our participants to brainstorm, network, and make vital connections that can lead to new initiatives and ideas in a way that is exclusively virtual, online meetings cannot.
Funders: The Open Bioinformatics Foundation
All materials – GitHub page: https://github.com/bioinformatics-hub-ke/BHKi-Seminar-Series-22