Training in numbers

For those of us who like data, end of year statistics are like the holidays all over again. It’s a few days combining the external training data from all six EMBL sites, then playing with excel sheets and pivot tables galore. The point of it all? We want to know how many scientists we reach each year, and our goal is to train as many scientists as possible – after all, sharing is caring, and training is one of EMBL’s core missions.

External training activities at EMBL focus largely on the events in the Course and Conference Programme , which saw 7,148 people come through EMBL’s doors in 2018, around 500 more than in 2017. We had 59 courses and 26 conferences across our sites in Heidelberg, Hinxton, Hamburg and Grenoble. For us here in Heidelberg, there was never a dull moment, from the intimate meetings with 50 participants, to the conferences that filled the Klaus Tschira Auditorium to capacity or the course participants chatting away during the coffee breaks. In addition, 345 delegates received financial assistance to attend one of our events, thanks to the EMBL Corporate Partnership Programme and EMBO, as well as Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds who provided support for various practical courses.

EMBL’s external training activities also comprise online training in bioinformatics and wet lab techniques, where we reached almost 500,000 users – and this doesn’t even count all the YouTube views. On- and off-site training activities carried out by EMBL faculty via lectures, workshops, conference exhibitions, etc are where we reach the most people. In total, EMBL staff reached more than 75,000 people – equal to about ½ the population of Heidelberg! The EMBL Scientific Visitor Programme, which allows scientists to come to EMBL through internships or collaborate on specific research projects had 688 students take part from all around the world.

As you can see, 2018 was a very busy year for all of us involved in external training. Whether it be group leaders, scientific organisers or teams of event organisers, it takes a lot of people to deliver the extensive and high quality training that EMBL has to offer –  so we would like to give a big THANKS to everyone involved!


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One language to unite them all

Copyright: EMBL Photolab

And so it became that the whole earth was of many languages, with no common speech. As people moved to Germany, they found a hill in Heidelberg and settled there.

They used steel and glass instead of stone, and cement for mortar to build their settlement. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a campus, with a tower of DNA that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Then the Director General came down to see the campus and the tower the people were building. The Director General said, “If as one people speaking different languages they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and give them one language so they will understand each other even better.”

So the Director General gathered them there from over all the earth, and gave them the language of science and they finished building the campus and the tower. It is now called the Tower of ATC – because there people from the whole world gather to speak the universal language of science and do great things.*

We speak over 40 different languages at EMBL but we all speak the language of science. Happy International Mother Language Day (21 February)!

*The text was adapted from Genesis 11:1-8, New International Version.

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Meet the Trainer – Ashley Sanders

In spirit of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February), we are proud to launch our “Meet the Trainer” Series, in which we will profile some of the amazing trainers from the EMBL Course Programme. We begin with Dr. Ashley D. Sanders, a distinguished scientist in the Genome Biology Unit of EMBL whose research focuses on how single-cell genomes change over time and how this impacts cell behavior.

Ashley will be training at the upcoming EMBO Practical Course: Single-Cell Omics (12 – 18 May 2019) and we asked her to give us some insights and tips for the course, as well as answer some not so scientific questions.

What is the greatest benefit of the course for the scientific community?

Without a doubt, single-cell measurements have emerged as the most direct method for deconvoluting complex and heterogeneous samples, and for exploring how subpopulations of cells respond to experimental manipulations. This course will allow participants to learn some of the most cutting-edge technologies and gain valuable hands-on experience from leading experts in the field. I hope this will help inspire new research, discoveries and collaborations.

What could the techniques in this course be used for in the bigger picture?

New technology equips us with new tools to explore long-standing questions in biology. Emergent single-cell omics methods are now providing us with the chance to ask how individual cells differ in terms of their DNA mutational profiles, epigenomic states and transcriptional outputs – enabling us to explore dynamic cellular relationships through a new lens. In unravelling these relationships we will better understand how diversity is established and maintained in healthy human tissues, and how aberrations in these processes can lead to disease.

Are the methods used in this course unusual or new?

The course will highlight some of the newest and most exciting methods in genomic research, including single cell bisulfite sequencing, single-cell RNA-seq and Strand-seq. Strand-seq is a novel single-cell and strand-specific sequencing method and this is the first time it will be offered in a course format.

 What is your number one tip related to the course?

Engage. Take time to interact with the other participants and the trainers. This course offers a unique opportunity to meet your colleagues in the field of single-cell biology, which can lead to new relationships and collaborations.

What challenges is your research field facing?

Single-cell genomics is expensive, noisy and complex. We need to bring down the cost of production to increase throughput and access more cells. We need to improve benchtop protocols to generate higher quality data from each cell we invest in. And we need smarter and faster bioinformatics that extract meaningful signal and integrate data layers across cells and experiments.

Where is science heading in your opinion?

We are in a single-cell omics era. Novel approaches are now available to untangle complex biological systems through multi-layered and complementary data types. By designing smart experiments that integrate across these layers, I believe we are positioned to unravel how homeostatic multicellular tissues are generated and maintained. In understanding these nuanced and cooperative inter-cell relationships, we will be in a position to deliver more holistic cell-based health care. This may involve selectively targeting rogue cells that disrupt our systems or producing functional regenerative tissues for transplants.

What was your first ever job?

Selling coffee through the Tim Hortons drive-thru in Toronto, Canada

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

Yoga instructor

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Ten simple rules for delivering live distance training using webinars

See original article “Ten simple rules for delivering live distance training in bioinformatics across the globe using webinars, published November 15, 2018.

Learning opportunities are now easily available online. Although students appreciate having the trainer (and classmates) available and close by, many parts of the globe tend to get neglected when it comes to live training. Due to the low cost, short duration, and flexible, potentially global access, webinars (web-based seminars) can be used to train and/or promote a variety of themes – the only requirement is access to a computer, smart phone or tablet, and an internet connection.

Over the past five years our colleagues at EMBL-EBI have developed 10 simple rules for  organising and delivering webinars.

Rule 1: Choose your webinar software wisely

There is no shortage of “best webinar software products” out there. Free products have the disadvantage of limiting your audience size. If you want to reach out to as many people as possible, free software is therefore unlikely to be an option.

See below for our top five software programmes, with the minimum requirement of must-have features, other key specifications, and the URLs to learn more.

The following features should also be taken into account:

  • Can you track registration and attendance?
  • Can you share the screen during the webinar?
  • Can you launch polls in real time?
  • Can you collect feedback after the session?
  • Can you obtain detailed analytics?
  • Can you text chat with the audience?
  • Can you record the session?
  • Can you follow up with emails?
  • Can you share the webinar materials (slides, exercises)?
  • Can you change the control of the screen in real time to a presenter other than yourself?
  • Can you easily get hold of the support team in the event of a “webinar catastrophe?”
  • Can the participants dial in using a telephone line in the event of poor Wi-Fi connection?
  • Can the participants join webinars on the go with a mobile device?

Rule 2: Pilot it with experts and friends

Now that you have selected the software, you should run a pilot within the free trial period to get familiar with the infrastructure. Choose a topic that you know a lot about (and/or work with) and there is a need for training on. Select a group of people who you know and can give positive and constructive feedback for your test audience. Once the pilot is done, check the software performance against the list of perks from Rule 1. If it did not meet your standards, trial a different software until you find the one that best fits.

Rule 3: Get a host on board

If face-to-face workshops are already part of your training portfolio, get in touch with previous trainers and invite them to host a webinar – they will also help you to find the right audience. Having a host on board will take the pressure off so you can focus on crafting the syllabus, writing the training abstract and setting up the webinar registration.

If you have never delivered face-to-face training before, consider getting in touch with your network of work colleagues and inviting someone on board as a host.

Rule 4: Find your audience

Before advertising your webinar, save a few spaces for members of your team (possible supporters at the Q&A session), in case your webinar is a sell-out. Advertise your webinar on social media, mailing lists, newsletters, and relevant journals. Once registration is open, watch out for likely bots by looking through their registration. If names and/or usernames contain random characters only, it is likely to be a fake registrant. Unfortunately there is not much you can do against bots, but it’s good to keep an eye on it to get a more realistic expected number for genuine attendees.

Rule 5: Prepare your content: Less is more

You love what you do, so it is natural that you will try to cram in a lot of information you think is relevant. Don’t!

  • Start small: give an overview and some topic highlights
  • Do not overcrowd your slides with detail
  • Make your slides visually compelling – consider adding live demos or a recording showing some functionalities of your resource
  • Build polls into your webinar to hold your audience’s attention

Include one slide on the logistics of the live webinar, such as:

  • Webinar attendees will be muted
  • Materials (slides, exercises) will be available for download
  • Attendees are encouraged to ask questions
  • Questions will be answered at the end (via chat box or otherwise).
  • The session will be recorded and shared.

Rule 6: Lights, camera, action

The big day has finally arrived. Whether you have a full house or just a handful of registrants, you will be recording your session, so the video will be available for anyone to watch it. It is very unusual to get a full turnout—more typical is that 40% to 60% of registrants turn up.

If you are suffering from frequent low attendance, consider the following:

  • Was the timing wrong?
  • Did your webinar overlap with other events on the same topic?
  • If you are webcasting to a single host, did it clash with a regular seminar or meeting taking place at the host organization?

You should now get your laptop ready for the live session.

  • Make sure you close down email clients, Skype chats, and so on. You do not want notifications popping up at the corner of your computer screen or beep sounds during your training session.
  • Do not deliver your webinar from your regular desk. Book a room instead to ensure you are in a quiet place and will not be interrupted.
  • Have your laptop plugged in and use a wired internet connection.
  • Get the screen at eye level so that your head and neck are at a comfortable position and attendees will look into your eyes rather than eyelids or forehead.
  • Some software has a beep sound to notify you when people join or leave the training session. Disable it.

Rule 7: Be engaging

  • Make use of polls—the webinar software you purchase should offer this functionality. Share the results with the audience and make sure you and your presentation are flexible enough so you adjust the content to your audience on the fly.
  • Throw in direct questions and ask the audience to respond via chat
  • Encourage your audience to ask questions, during or after the webinar. Our choice is to take all questions at the end. If you have a colleague (or facilitator), you can say that they will be happy to answer the question via the chat box while you talk.
  • Ask the audience to address the question to “everyone,” preventing another attendee asking the same question. Written Q&As also allow to keep record of the pain points and/or feedback.
  • If you choose to do the Q&A verbally, do so at the end of your webinar (for the same reasons outlined above) and unmute all the participants. Be aware of likely echoing once the microphones are no longer muted, especially if the participants happen to be in the same room.

Rule 8: Record the session and share it

Webinars are “for life, not just for Christmas”! Record your session to make it available to those registrants who did not make it to the live webinar. Share the recording more widely (perhaps by posting to a service such as YouTube or Vimeo) and make it available to a much broader audience. Once the recording is done, you may need to edit it to remove long pauses, the start and the end of the recording, and the Q&A session.

Rule 9: Get feedback and act on it

Hooray! You have delivered your webinar, the recording is online, and you are ready to move on to deliver more webinars. Before moving to the next, you need to assess how the first one went. Seek feedback on the style, content and/or the technical aspects of your training session. Evaluation surveys are the first channel of feedback  – the sooner you send this after the webinar, the higher the chances that the attendees will fill it out. The Q&A at the end of the webinar is also a chance for the attendees to “voice” their final comments. Once your webinar is published, monitor future engagement with it, and adjust the content and level of detail if necessary in future webinars.

Rule 10: It is not the end

Once webinars become part of your routine, you may tend to believe that this is it. You have nailed it. It is the end. Far from it. It is actually the beginning. The webinar can be a flavour of what is to come.

Things you may want to consider for future webinar training sessions:

  • How often will repeats be required?
  • Will you be the speaker again, or will you invite others?
  • How can you expand the pool of speakers?
  • Where will you get your audience from?


Webinars are a powerful and engaging means of training and dissemination that can reach global audiences and therefore help us to address inequality and imbalance of teaching bioinformatics or other subjects. We hope that our experience can inspire you into this brave new world of live distance training.

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