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Designing Bioinformatics Training: Interview with Dr Sarah Morgan

Short description of the interview
Hi, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us. I am the Ensemble Outreach Manager, I’m joined today by Sarah Morgan, who is the scientific training coordinator for the EBI Thank you very much for joining us this week Sarah. Could you please tell us a bit more about your role and the EBI training programme in general. Thanks Ben. Thank you for inviting me along. So yes, as you said I’m scientific training coordinator at EMBL-EBI, working within the training team and I manage the day to day running of our user training programme. And that covers everything that would normally happen on site where we also got off sites across the globe and also our online learning as well.
So the courses that you run are aimed at people at all stages of their scientific careers, introductory, intermediate and advanced topics. Yes so most of the audience that we see in our courses they are Post-grads upwards. However, the online tutorials, the webinars we run, et cetera, are available and open to anybody to access. We do also do some work with educational programmes as well. So we have a link with Cambridge University for a couple of courses there, and obviously those are just for those specific students. But obviously a lot of the material that’s generated there is used in our other courses as well, and again is wide open to others. At the.
moment we’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic Sarah, so I would be interested to know how the restrictions that have been placed on all of our lives have affected your ability and your team’s ability to deliver genomic training.
So as you can imagine, it has had quite an impact considering a large element of our training programme is face to face. So as I say both face to face at Hinxton, where we’re based and then face to face across the globe where we often send trainers across the globe to do training. We had to make a pretty rapid change obviously to deliver virtual training and I must say that the transition across was, I think actually smoother than we’d anticipated in some respects. So we were able to move fairly quickly and we did find that actually the feedback we were getting was really positive straightaway. And we’ve continued to work on that.
And I think the one thing is that virtual training will definitely not go away. We’ve already said that once we get to the point of being able to deliver face-to-face training again, we are still going to retain the virtual training element to the programme as well. We obviously have a programme of online tutorials and webinars already, and the nice thing is that we’ve had even more people over the past year accessing those, and our webinars have never been so successful. And some of the time we’re getting huge numbers of people signing up. And the nice thing is we’re also getting some fantastic discussions from those people who are attending as well.
And we’re seeing that people are definitely attending more than one of those they’re coming back for repeats. So it has had some negatives in that we lost a number of courses last year that we would normally run, and we have got a slightly smaller programme again this year. There are seven courses that are more difficult to translate, but we’ve also seen some real positives. It’s given us a chance to try different things. And as I say things that are definitely here to stay.
I mean virtual training does have a number of benefits as well, including being a lot greener in terms of travelling and also being more accessible, which is cheaper to run a course, and therefore reduces fees and makes it accessible for people all around the world. Yeah, that’s the thing. There are some real benefits from doing it. And I think it’s a process or an approach we’ve already started to look at, because it’s already been start to look at things like the Green side of things and can we continue to do all the travel we do. And the accessibility issues. Again, I think about how can we encourage others into the courses? You can’t necessarily come to us at EBI.
So really, it forces us to do that thinking more quickly. But I don’t think that’s been a bad thing and I think it’s really making us even go further with our thinking around that. So over the next year or so, I think there will be more things, more things to come, more things that we will try as well. It’s going to be really interesting to see what the training landscape looks like this time next year. Yes I think it’s going to be potentially different again. So interesting times. What advice would you give to someone who is beginning to design bioinformatics training for the first time? So starting to design from scratch is obviously quite difficult for any training potentially.
But I think the key thing is really knowing who your audience is. So bioinformatics, you could be designing for a whole range of different audiences. You could be designing for a very general audience, for people who are really quite new to bioinformatics, right through to a much more advanced audience who really want to get to grips with how particular analysis is done and I really want to maybe even start designing different ways of doing that analysis. So really I think getting to know your audience is key. So you know who they are, what it is they’re trying to work on but also importantly know what they know already. So that again, you can start to work out, OK.
So in your course this is the audience this is what they want to do. Where are you going to try and get them to? But also where are they starting from? So are there any particular steps or techniques that you use to make your training events inclusive and accessible for the wider range of learners that you have? So I think it’s trying to firstly make sure that we’re putting the courses out there, it’s very clear that they’re open to all. So this is the point that they’re open to anybody who has an interest in trying to learn that particular topic really.
Most of the people we see are generally PhDs and Postdocs, and then people who need to do the analysis quite soon. So we generally aim our courses at people who want to learn it soon so they can put what we teach them in the course into practice quite soon after. So it’s being quite clear on who the audience is as well. So they can identify whether OK. This is the type of person I am, this is the type of thing that I want to learn. I think then really it’s when we’re running the course again making sure we have a range of people there.
So as I say we are open as a global programme, we try and encourage applications from across the world to come and join us. And then in the actual classrooms, if we’re doing it face to face, it’s about having a variety of different teaching styles so that we’ve got a whole range of different things everything from the individual, practicals through to some group work elements. . Then there’s plenty of opportunities for discussion. So that people can again get that one on one conversation as well as that larger group conversation.
Now we’re currently running virtual training. It’s trying to look at how we can be more inclusive and accessible there. And this is something we’re actually looking at the moment. Because we’re running all of our courses by Zoom. Are we being as accessible as we can be? In the way that we’re using that, so it’s trying to look at things like captioning and ways of ensuring that everybody can access it. In terms of diversity, we generally get a very good gender balance applying to the courses anyway. And then obviously it’s trying to make sure that we also have a balance in the trainers who also teach on the courses as well.
I think the virtual training is something that we’re all trying to learn as we’re going along. I think it’s something that you have to adapt and change, which is it’s an interesting challenge. It is and I think this is where actually from an increase of accessibility. It’s great because people can just log in from wherever they are. Obviously then we get the issue of time zones and we do want to have, when we’re running a virtual course, we want to have the live components and this is sometimes the issue is obviously we are based in UK time zones. So a lot of the training is done in that.
We have tried to do some where maybe we’ll move to the afternoon. So we can hit more over to the Americas or we might go for more of the morning so we get the other side of the world but, you know, it’s just time to look and balance how we do this at the moment. So the next question is about the collaboration between the genomics and the bioinformatics communities around the world. So how have they really been coming together to improve the training capacity and the effectiveness of training events? I think this is where the bioinformatics training community is very open I think. I guess, I only joined it when I joined EML-EBI eight years ago.
And the first thing I realised is that it is a very open community. And there’s a lot of collaboration and wanting to work together. And I think a lot of it comes down to things like sharing of materials. This is something that is definitely opening up more and more so that there are things out there, data sets are a big issue. So you know again sharing of good training data sets, sharing best practices. How can we best do this? What’s the best way to try and get this across and make sure that we are having impact in terms of the training? And then also train the trainer.
I’ve been involved in a number of train the trainer activities since joining the EBI and that’s been a great way to really get those people in who are enthusiastic about getting this information across, but also have the expert subject knowledge to be able to get that across as well. So I think it’s just lots of talking and lots of trying to build networks in places, again, where there is a need to grow that training. And I think that’s what we’ve been quite good at being able to be mobile in doing that. So are there any wider standards or guidelines for making materials available and accessible for other people who are interested in developing their own training events?
So it’s something and we’ve been involved in discussions through various groups, I think so. Things such as Goblet, which is an organisation for bioinformatics and education training. We looked at this issue a number of years ago. Research infrastructures such as Elixir again have had quite an impact in looking at how we can measure these things. And then recently, with things like the FAIR principles, which obviously came, the FAIR principles around data sharing initially digital objects. But training materials fall into those quite nicely. So again, there’s been a lot of work over the last year or so. Actually looking at it well, can we take those principles and can we apply them to training materials?
And it’s a nice way of thinking about how we can get those materials out. But I will say that the first thing is really you’ve got to think about sharing them. So I think from the beginning. I want to share my materials and then start to think about how we can best share those. And there’s a lot of initiatives out there to try and get that material shared. So then thinking back to the events that you were running, so how do you ensure that the EBI training programme and the individual events themselves have long term and sustainable impact for the trainees?
So measuring impact is always a bit of a difficult one and for every course, we always run an immediate post-course survey. But of course at that point you can’t really say you have much impact apart from maybe you have shown them something different that they haven’t done before. And that’s one of the questions we ask. Have we taught you something? Something new? Have you come across any resources you’ve not used previously? And do you think you’ll use them in future? What we found starts with short training courses, you’re not doing assessments in the same way as you would for a formal educational course. And we try and put some assessment, some mini assessment points in courses.
So we might end the week of a course with a group challenge or a small project where trainees get an opportunity to put into practice what they’ve learned during that week. And by doing that we can see that there’s been some impact, that they’ve learned something they feel more confident and the trainees are taking that away with them. What we have then been doing now for the last few years, is that we will go back to all of those trainees between six months and a year later to really ask them what have they been doing with what they’ve been taught. So what impact has it had on their ability to do research and to do other things?
Have they passed the information on to others? And actually that’s been a really nice thing in terms of that capacity building piece. That a lot of them I think, when we’ve surveyed most people have passed it on to at least five others if not more. So it’s very nice to see that they feel they’re having an impact and often it is around that they are more confident with the analysis, more confident uses of their own data. That they’ve been enabled to do analysis they couldn’t previously do and then they pass this on to others. So we’re definitely picking that impact up.
I think it’s great that obviously you’re running these formal events and then that sparking off these more perhaps informal trainings. With just mentor or mentorship and an individual helping others in their labs when they go back that that’s really nice. Yeah it’s a good way of doing it because if they are feeling more confident, it’s good to see them passing that on to others. And those people may well come back to us or come join us for a course at some point or they will do a course somewhere else, but that’s what we want to see, is that people will take this information away and will pass it on to others and it’s something we encourage.
Thank you very much for joining us for the interview Sarah. Obviously you’ve got so much experience in delivering genomics training. So it’s been really a valuable to get your insight into all of the important aspects and the steps we need to consider when we’re designing genomics training. Thanks Ben Thanks for inviting me. It’s been great to have a chat through this.

Interview with Dr Sarah Morgan (EBI Training), discussing general approaches and philosophies of designing training.

Sarah Morgan is a Scientific Training Coordinator at European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), where she leads the external user training programme. She manages a team of scientific training officers and systems administrators to develop and deliver a range of bioinformatics focused training from introductory to more advanced levels. She is also responsible for development and delivery of both face to face and online content and she is mentoring and supporting others to develop their training skills.

Reflection point

Share with your peers the type of training you plan to do and how this fits under a training programme in your organisation.

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Train the Trainer: Design Genomics and Bioinformatics Training

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