"The Department of Computer Science will hold its first Bioinformatics Summit next week. We hope this will be a significant step in encouraging more interaction and increasing collaborative research among researchers on campus in the areas of bioinfomatics and computational biology."
Since this is the few times that I have been to a summit, I was curious to find out what usually transpires in one. The Oxford American Dictionary defines summit as:
a meeting between heads of governmentSince this definition is not really pertinent to our scenario, I consulted the thesaurus and it revealed possible synonyms as meeting, negotiations, conference and talks. Basically, a summit is an event when people can talk about their work. In this case, it was also to help foster more interaction between researchers on campus specifically those from the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB).
I attended the session on March 8. While it was a nice start, I felt that it could be better. Here's why:
- A more tactful coordinator
I felt that the coordinator was not up to the task. Instead of fostering conversations between the attendees, he was basically dominating the entire conversation with his questions. I understand that he is interested in what is being presented, but as an coordinator, he should exercise more tact and make sure that everyone has a chance to ask a question. Or he could ask "better" questions that might provide deeper insight into what kinds of collaborations that biological scientists would like to have with the CS department.
Incidentally, Guy Kawasaki, posted about this today in How To Be a Great Moderator:
"Make everyone else look smart. The goal of the moderator is to make the panelists look smart. It is not to make himself look smart--or grab the most attention. Moderators can make panelists look smart in two ways: first, give them a few softball questions that they can knock out of the park. For example, ‘What do you view as the most pressing issues of the industry?’ Second, extract good information out of the panelists by rephrasing, summarizing, or clarifying what they said. A good moderator accounts for only 10% of the speaking time of a panel--she is the ‘invisible hand,’ not the star."
- Presentation from CS professors were missing
This is probably excusable since it is the first summit. All the presenters were from the life sciences department. I would be interested to see how CS professors can contribute to the bioinformatics effort. From an outsider's point of view, it seems that there are very few professors that deal with bioinformatics in the CS department. So, it would be best to at least introduce some of their work.
- No clear emphasis on what technology is needed
At least that was how I felt about today's session. There was no clear explanation of what kinds of computing technology were needed to help foster the bioinformatics development. There was some mention of massive storage and fast parallel computation but the requirements were not detailed enough to follow up with a more formal analysis of what is needed. Then again, it is unfair to blame this on the presenters. As researchers from outside the CS department, we cannot assume that they are familiar with the computing technology that we have to offer. Therefore, it would be better if someone from the CS department itself accosted the presenters and at least give a suggestion of some possible technological solutions.
One way to solve the communication barrier (CS researchers are not familiar with a lot of terms from the biological world, and researchers from the biological world are not familiar with the technology in computers) is to have a walkthrough in the research lab. It could be in the CS lab or the IGB lab. It does not matter. Both groups just need to see what the other group needs and what they can provide. It's so much simpler than having to attend talks and lectures. Just go tour the lab for a few days and see what they need. I am sure that solutions, though not necessarily optimal ones, shall present themselves over time. Since the field of bioinformatics is relatively new, there aren't that many books written about the best practices of the field. In fact, I would be really wary of a book like that since the field is continually evolving and what you have this month would probably be supplanted by new technology very soon. That being said, there are still some books that could be useful. Look out for these books from O'Reilly.
Anyway, I am glad that the CS department in UIUC is making an effort to collaborate with the life sciences department. Bioinformatics per se is probably not going to be the next big thing in the future. However, its footprint might have a significant impact on other areas of computing. From my visit to Purdue University, I realize the importance of privacy when accessing this kinds of information. For instance, if company A wants to check some biological information with company B, it should not be able to access other data from company B. Similarly, company A should not be able to access any other information from company B. In short, the transaction should be transparent to both companies in the interest of corporate safety but at the same time, it should foster some kind of information sharing between the two companies since it is impossible for one company to hold all the information about all your clients.Tweet
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