Thursday, 10 July 2014

Scaling up bioinformatics training online

Bioinformatics has grown very quickly since the EBI opened 20 years ago, and I think it’s fair to say that it will grow even faster over the next 20 years. Biology is being transformed to a fundamentally information-centric science, and a key part of this has been the aggregation of knowledge in large-scale databases. When you put all the hard-won information about living systems together – their genome sequences, variation, proteins, interactions with small molecules – they are, potentially, incredibly useful. I say “potentially” because even the most pristine, large, interconnected data collection in the world isn’t worth much if people don’t know how to use it.
So at the EBI we have this challenge of making sure researchers (a) know we have all this amazing data for them, and (b) are able to use it. One aspect of this is making easy to use, intuitive websites, which is something I’ve blogged about before. But training, in all its forms, is really important.

A moving target

Not very surprisingly, face-to-face interactions really make the biggest difference. Nothing is better than having a person to guide you through using a resource (and making sure you’re using the right one), which is why some seven years ago we increased our training efforts substantially. We now run a huge number of courses on the Genome Campus in Cambridge and deliver an even larger number around the globe.
All this training is coordinated in one team, but of course training is embedded in all the different resource teams so the people actually leading the courses really know their stuff. I know first-hand from days as co-lead of Ensembl how effective this can be.
These courses have been taken out to over 200 sites in close to 30 countries, and they’ve reached more than 7000 people. But as I said, bioinformatics is growing fast and face-to-face training is just really hard to scale up. One way we are dealing with that is through a train-the-trainer programme, which we run in lots of different places, and while it’s effective, it’s just not enough.

Training online

So about three years ago we launched Train online, an e-learning platform set up to help molecular biologists figure out how to make the best use of our resources, dipping in as time permits. We now have 43 online courses, and over 60,000 people from close to 200 countries have visited Train online this year alone (effectively doubling the number we had this time last year).
Location of Visitors to Train Online

Good content first

These training materials are put together by teams of people who put a lot of effort into making them engaging and motivating. The way people learn individually (specifically, using online tools) is rather different from the way they learn through interacting with another person, so we try to accommodate this in a number of ways, for example making more ‘bite-sized’ courses.
Face-to-face training happens in real time and is fairly fluid, and there is a lot of preparation that goes on right up to the moment a course starts. The workflow for e-learning, on the other hand, needs constant reviewing and refreshing to stay current, so someone with adequate expertise needs to stay on it.
(As a point of interest, we assign DOIs to our courses so that the authors get recognition for their work and so we can track citations of them.)

Production value matters

As bioinformatics and computational techniques become increasingly important to more and more applied fields – healthcare, agriculture, environmental research and others – we will need to continue to innovate around how we train people. That means anything from new, effective methods for training educators to making e-learning platforms like Train online as interactive as possible.
High-quality online courses need be inviting to explore, so that you remember what you learn and are inspired to learn more. That requires significant infrastructure behind it. You need much more than just the technical capacity to set things up properly on the web – you need video equipment, editing and production workflows, video hosting and a great interface… but more than anything, you need solid in-house UX and multimedia expertise and you have to be ready to use it.

Who needs it?

A rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation estimates that there are up to 2 million life science researchers worldwide, and depending on how you count all healthcare-related research that number could go up to 4 million. If 100,000 people use Train online this year, our online learning resource alone will reach between 2% and 10% of the scientists who probably need bioinformatics training. That’s a pretty good start, but there’s a long way to go.

So if you haven’t had a look at Train online yet, please do – you might be surprised. It’s one innovation we’re particularly proud of, and we’re looking forward to seeing more in the future.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

"DNA" as a cultural icon

Over the years I've been fascinated to see where the word "DNA" and the iconic double helix turn up in everyday life. It's become so commonplace that phases like "corporate DNA" are in common usage and the double helix has pride of place on beauty cream adverts and many other places. 

While it's interesting to see genomics enter the cultural lexicon, I think the general understanding of what DNA does and does not do has rushed way beyond the scientific case. But can we contain the spread of the idea of DNA as a cop-out?

DNA in corporate management

"DNA" seems to permeate business speak. For example, a popular management book called "Corporate DNA" describes how a company can change the behaviour of their employees by changing their fundamental management structure. Other business strategists use the metaphor of DNA to codify the precise nature of a company:

"Just as the double-stranded DNA molecule is held together by bonds between base pairs of four nucleotides, whose sequence spells out the exact instructions required to create a unique organism, we describe the DNA of a living organization as having four bases that, combined in myriad ways, define an organization’s unique traits..."

One consultancy puts forward its winning formula as: "The Effective High-Performance Organization = (Corporate DNA + Strategy + Agility) x Risk Management x People & Culture. They explain:

"Corporate DNA ... inspires the way individuals in your organization think, behave and act. It determines the motives behind their actions. We work with our clients to distinctively and explicitly formulate and align the components of their Corporate DNA and put them effectively into practise. Typically, the Corporate DNA consists of six components..." (emphasis mine.)

DNA in art and architecture

DNA is a 'winning formula' concept for architecture as well. Here's a picture I took of a building site in London, which boasts, "...with Solidspace DNA inside". Presumably, this takes its cue from the corporate-DNA meme.
DNA as an architectural design concept
I was really intrigued by a description of a Roy Lichtenstein picture at the Tate Modern, which equates DNA and brushstrokes: 

"...they can be seen as a quiet, almost simple meditation on the very essence of painting. These small, late paintings bring together two opposing approaches to painting - spontaneous release versus controlled application - via its very DNA, the brushstroke."

(By the way, this was part of a great retrospective on Roy Lichenstein, an artist whose work I've always loved.) 
DNA and Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstrokes

DNA and the beauty industry

Double-helix iconography adds a certain mystique to cosmetics adverts. Here's a rather imposing picture in Heathrow airport for an Estée Lauder product. Notice that the double helix is carefully not linked with any specific aspect of the product - Estée Lauder doesn't go to far as to say that the product uses "DNA technology" (which some products do claim...). It is just a background motif to lend their product some scientific gravitas. 
Rather gigantic advert incorporating the double helix, for no particular reason.
A couple of things that just annoy me: They've decided to go for a symmetrical double helix, which is what makes it an icon rather than any kind of scientific image (the real strand offsets would not be so pleasing to the eye, and demand too much thought about what is going on). Also, the 'rungs' are all the same, making it more of a stairway than a complex, information-containing structure. 

I've also seen a skin-cream advert with a DNA helix motif that has the tag line, "bringing out the real you". Sadly, I did not take a picture of it, but it is a prime example of really irresponsible advertising.

The DNA of legends

Here's a rather amazing watch advert, with the tag line, "The DNA of Famous Legends". 

With the right DNA, you, too, could have this watch.
Where to begin in discussing this advert?

All these examples just illustrate a kind of knowledge vacuum that is being exploited in different ways.

DNA in the Zeitgeist

So what does all of this assume about the general understanding of DNA in our culture? 

DNA is scientific and modern. Using the double helix picture and/or the word 'DNA' says, "This is really advanced stuff." 

DNA is unchangeable, or at the least very hard to change. Using 'DNA' in this way says, "You know that DNA is your very essence, and that changing it is going to take an extraordinary effort," (i.e. changing your 'corporate DNA'). 

DNA is has core information from which other, more visible features can be derived. Many of these cases convey that DNA is a sort of truth at the core of the product / company / design, or that it is a hidden thread holding visible features together. The skin cream that "brings out the real you" enhances your purest qualities, present from birth and gifted by your parents. A company's core, foundational values are its DNA, which will not change even if its products do. The DNA metaphor in these cases provides a sort of scientific sheen to 'destiny'.

DNA is simple but gives rise to complexity. The explanation of the Lichtenstein piece, rather surprisingly, equated DNA with the brushstroke. The metaphor almost assumes that people know more about biology than art. As a string of nucleotide pairs can be used to build an apple tree or Roy Lichtenstein himself, a series of brushstrokes can give rise to a potato print or the Mona Lisa. 

Should we be concerned?

Is the rise of 'DNA' and the double helix in contemporary culture problematic? I think in many ways we should be happy that this concept is a familiar one in everyday life, and that it is generally presented in a positive light. It certainly helps me when I try to describe what I do. Like most scientists, I get the usual furrowed brow and look of concern/trepidation when I start to explain my work in mixed company, but when I get to the word 'DNA', many non-scientists will start to nod and we're on familiar ground again. 

In all of the cases I've shown, I understand why they are trying to connect their subject with DNA. But while these examples are seemingly harmless and even funny (I do find the "DNA of famous legends" hilarious), they show a trend towards widespread misinformation. In particular, there seems to be a popular consensus that DNA as an unchangeable, core essence, and that your DNA is your destiny. That is just wrong.

The metaphor is further extended to imply that there are mysterious truths hidden in your DNA that neither you nor anyone else can challenge. This comes out in all sorts of bad ways, notably in cases where people dismiss destructive behaviours as inevitable: "He has ADHD genes," or, "It's in his DNA to be spiteful," or "I've got fat genes." It's actually not that uncommon for people to say they don't want to learn the time of their death from reading their DNA.

Nature versus Nurture, again

This type of lazy thinking drives DNA scientists crazy, because that is just not the way it works. DNA variants influence all sorts of biological activities, but these are often small. For anything complex, like behaviour but also a huge range of life outcomes, personal choices change things. 

I've always liked Matt Ridley's snappy synthesis of the Nature versus Nurture debate in his book, "Nature via Nuture", and I think the popular debate around this issue could use more fresh voices from the science side (Ridley's book is from 2003 and still totally relevant). It might be an uphill battle, as destiny is a old concept present in many cultures around the world. But there are plenty of loud voices clamouring for people to take responsibility for their actions, and personal choices making an impact on your own life is a key component of much of modern thinking.

DNA has captured the public imagination and the double helix has become an icon of our time. But in many ways the general understanding of what DNA is has rushed way beyond the scientific case. If we are to keep the popular understanding of DNA anywhere near reality, we need to have a serious push to disentangle "DNA" from "destiny" and pair it instead with new perspectives on free will. This is going to be hard, as people are starting to get comfortable with this new way of framing fatalism. But it's early days yet, and the scientific community - which includes science communicators - needs to find new ways of conveying DNA as one common thread in many lifetimes full of personal choices.