Meet the Trainer – Varsha Kale

PHOTO: Varsha Kale

Meet Varsha Kale, a Bioinformatician in the Finn team: Microbiome Informatics at EMBL-EBI and one of the trainers at the EMBL Course: Metagenomics Bioinformatics (08 – 12 November 2021).

We virtually sat down with Varsha and quizzed her on where she thinks the field of Metagenomics is heading in the future; and some inside information on what you can expect from the course.

What is your research focus and why did you choose to become a scientist?

Using metagenomics to characterise the chicken and salmon gut microbiome and its functions.

I enjoyed learning about bacteria and how they thrived in various environments. This opened a world of different microbes from symbiotic, commensal to pathogenic and highly resistant. It was exciting! When working in a lab, we would receive pre-analysed sequencing data from bioinformaticians. My mentors at the time were supportive to indulge my curiosity as to how the analysis was performed and hence I chose to study bioinformatics. At EMBL-EBI I have the opportunity to learn about new tools and analysis methods frequently.

Where do you see this field heading in the future?

The continued expansion of novel genomes and annotations deposited in public archives will give us more and deeper insight into some elusive environments. Additionally, as statistical modelling becomes more popular, many of the methods we use for annotation are adopting machine learning techniques. The challenges will be the integration of different data types, judging the optimal cutoffs for accurate annotation, and continuing to ensure that all of these new types are easily available through community-adopted public repositories.

How has training influenced your career?

I have been lucky to have opportunities to attend training courses which helped tremendously with understanding the basics of a new subject. Also, a field such as metagenomics is progressing so fast that training gives a great snapshot of the recent updates and methods that others are using for similar research.

What is your number one tip for people looking for scientific training?

Keep up to date with upcoming courses which are interesting to you. Twitter or LinkedIn can be useful for this, or even the webpages of some of your favourite institutions. However, I found that asking colleagues and peers about training courses they have attended is most informative.

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

To be honest, I went home one day from school and startled my parents with the news that bacteria are the new “cool” – so I’m not sure that I would have done something else! I enjoy singing and it might have been fun and challenging to pursue that.

Which methods and new technologies will be addressed in the course?

There is currently a lot of interest in generating metagenome assembled genomes (MAGs) from microbiome data, so we will work through this process including potential tools you might use for the various steps, as well as things to consider in controlling the quality of your data. An introduction to MGnify will also highlight the specialised pipelines used to analyse different types of microbiome data: amplicon, WGS reads, and assemblies.

What are the highlights of the course?

The course will give an overview of metagenomic data analysis including, browsing public data, quality control, and assembly of sequenced metagenomes, tools, and methods to analyse metagenomic data and submission to public archives. There will be a mixture of live and recorded talks, practicals, and Q&A’s with lots of opportunities for discussion. A personal highlight is the chance to learn about the research projects of others attending the course!


Interested in this course? Apply by 03 September.

For more upcoming events on cancer research take a look at our event listing.

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EMBL-EBI Training – 1 Year of Virtual Courses

A year ago today, we kicked off our first virtual course; Starting single cell RNA-seq analysis. This course was originally planned to take place onsite at EMBL-EBI Hinxton however, due to the pandemic we swiftly had to move this to virtual. Little did we know that virtual courses would still be going a year on. We have successfully hosted just over 18 virtual courses. Looking ahead to next year, we are hoping to continue with a virtual aspect of our programme. Below we hear from three team members on virtual events and their experiences.

PHOTO: Group photo from the starting single cell RNA-seq analysis course.

 

PHOTO: Sarah Morgan

Sarah Morgan 

Sarah has been the Scientific Training Coordinator since 2012, she manages the EMBL-EBI external user training programme, and leads our team of Scientific Training Officers. As you can imagine a year ago was a very busy time for Sarah moving a full programme of courses to virtual. She tells us her thoughts and experiences of virtual courses

How did you manage the team moving into a virtual environment? 

The first thing I did was check that all my team were fine working from home and getting to know their home situation – juggling children, partners, parents, pets, they had lots to deal with alongside trying to find new ways to keep delivering our programme! The move to home working was incredibly quick, so there was lots to deal with. Trying to get regular catch-ups across the team was incredibly important – I missed my daily catch-ups with our Events manager Charlotte Pearton (who I normally share an office with), and we needed to be in contact very often in those early days.

How did you manage moving an onsite course to virtual within a couple of months? 

We were lucky in that we had some experience of delivering training virtually, but not to the extent that we have done over the past year. We quickly set up a small task force to plan out how we could approach delivering the courses, thinking about what platforms to use, how we would give trainees compute access, what additional support they might need; and how to encourage and support our trainers to do their job in this new environment. We spent a lot of time communicating with participants, trainers and colleagues across EMBL in the early days, and were generally met with very positive responses. The team as a whole worked brilliantly to bring those first few courses online. The support and enthusiasm from everyone is what enabled us to move so quickly, along with fantastic ways to bring the virtual training alive.

How has your job changed with the team moving to virtual courses? 

I think I re-worked our training calendar about once a month from March onwards last year! Many parts of the job have not really changed that much – I still work closely with my training officers and the rest of the training team to get our courses up and running, monitoring how the courses are running and looking to improve where we can. What has changed is the travel and meeting with colleagues from across the world – though I don’t miss airports at the moment!

What do you miss most about on-site courses? 

Getting a chance to see the trainees in one big group and hearing the buzz of a course in action. When courses are running in our building at Hinxton there is always a nice hum of activity at coffee and lunch breaks with people chatting and getting to know each other. I miss seeing that and getting a chance to pop down and say hello.

What is something that can never be as good as during on-site courses, in your opinion?

Dinners at Hinxton Hall (and the tea-time biscuits with afternoon coffee!).

How do you see the future of EMBL-EBI Training courses? What are your hopes and thoughts? 

I would like to see a return to on-site training, but virtual courses are very definitely here to stay. We have seen some major advantages of running virtual courses, and I think looking ahead the EMBL-EBI programme will definitely be a mixture of both approaches.

 

PHOTO: Marina Pujol
PHOTO: Marina Pujol

Marina Pujol 

Marina joined the team in June 2018 as one of our Events Organisers. Her focus is on our onsite and virtual training courses as well as assisting with the delivery of events for the CABANA project. Marina was paramount in the planning and delivery of the Starting single-cell RNA-seq analysis course in 2020 and below she shares her experiences, lessons learned, and tips for organising a virtual course.

How does organising a virtual course compare to organising an on-site course? 

The first few months that we were organising virtual courses I thought that there wasn’t much difference between an onsite and a virtual course, however looking back at what has now been now 1 year, I have come to realise that it’s a completely different world.

Back when we worked on face-to-face courses we would deal with the logistics and organisation outside the training room, now we are sitting with them during the training too. This means our role has evolved and we have had the chance to understand and help to improve the trainers and trainees’ needs during that part of the course as well.

Events’ Organisers in the EMBL-EBI Training Team are nowadays working hand in hand, more than ever with the Scientifics Training Organisers. We are now invited to participate in the pre-organisation meetings with trainers and can provide advice thanks to our vast experience on virtual courses during the last year.

Overall, I believe this experience has enriched our job and is definitely something I would love to be part of in the future despite going back to face-to-face courses.

Top 3 tips to keep in mind while organising a virtual course?

  • Make the instructions on how to access the course are as clear and easy as possible, for example, zoom links, handbook link and programme information.
  • If possible, have at least two big screens to work like a pro, a speedy mouse, and a nice audio setting. Events’ Organisers have to juggle with at least 3 different platforms while hosting a course.
  • Surround yourself with amazing colleagues and team players that can give you a hand whenever you need it. And don’t forget to have something to drink and snacks available.

What is the biggest lesson you learned about organising virtual courses?

How grateful people are to be able to access training without having to travel, which would have resulted in higher costs for them meaning they might not be able to attend.

When we have delegates that are in a completely different time zone, and you can see the effort they are making to be awake and participate during the course – this makes me realise the importance that our training has for them and that we are lucky to contribute and help, even in the smallest part.

The one thing that you wished someone had told you before organising your first virtual course? 

How exhausting it could be! Especially during the first courses, when everything is new and you still don’t have the hang of it. I remember being really nervous at the beginning, a lot of new information was in our heads. Now it has become the norm and it’s nice to see the progress we have made.

How does the contact with speakers, organisers, and participants differ from on-site courses? 

The contact before the course is more or less the same, as we usually contact them only by email. However, once the course is running the dynamic changes quite a bit. You no longer can have that random conversation with them on their arrival or during coffee breaks, which I miss.

What is something that in your opinion is better about virtual courses?

The fact that our training can reach people from all over the world now, offering cheaper fees and even sometimes free courses that have been streamed live online. An ideal future would be to have both, virtual courses and face-to-face courses available, so more people could benefit from our training.

What do you miss most about on-site courses?

I miss the interactivity with trainers and trainees. Knowing how they are feeling daily, being able to help them with any query during the day, and having that personal contact. Although we offer a range of virtual networking activities we can never replace in-person interaction. It is also nice to see the relationships created at each course with the delegates, I believe good friendships have started in our courses.

How do you see the future of EMBL-EBI Training courses? What are your hopes and thoughts?

I would love to be able to offer both, on-site courses and virtual courses, so you have the opportunity to visit us onsite and have that face-to-face interaction but also you can choose to stay at home and have a great learning opportunity at less cost.

Hybrid at the moment is an unknown type of course for me, however,  something that we are exploring in the team.

 

Alexandra Holinski

PHOTO: Alexandra Holinski

Alexandra (Alex) joined the team in 2017 as a Scientific Training Officer and is responsible for designing, developing, and delivering several on-site and virtual courses. Alex together with experts from the BioModels team ran the Mathematics of life: Modelling molecular mechanisms virtually in October 2020 which, was the first edition of this course. This is running again in September and is open for applications until July, find out more here.

How does organising a virtual course compare to organising an on-site course?  

Organising a virtual course is different from organising an on-site course, a virtual course allows for more flexibility as far as the delivery of training is concerned. An example of this is the talks during a course, these can be pre-recorded and provided to course participants ahead of the course, watched during the course, or delivered live. The practicals can be run synchronously or asynchronously. This can be both exciting and an organisational challenge, especially as not one format perfectly suits all participants & trainers, and works for the content we deliver. The “how-to” has to be considered carefully ahead of the course so that the participants can have the most efficient virtual learning experience and both participants and trainers feel comfortable in the virtual setting.

How does the contact with speakers, organisers, and participants differ from on-site courses? 

In a virtual course, we are missing out on the informal chats with participants and trainers over coffee, lunch, and dinner. These have always been helpful in an on-site course, to get immediate feedback about the training from participants and therefore identify challenges and reacting to these. In a virtual course, we are contactable via Slack, Zoom, and email but it is more challenging to notice certain issues.

How has your role changed with moving to virtual courses?

The overall role has not changed immensely, I still develop training programmes together with scientific experts and support trainers in developing and delivering their training. However, of course, the focus and how we do things has changed. Also, I am getting more involved in delivering training on my own, and I quite enjoy this in a virtual setting.

How does the course programme differ from onsite courses?

During a virtual course, we start the days with short morning challenges like quizzes, so that the participants start working and chatting with each other and not feeling isolated in front of their screens. In an on-site course, this happens automatically over morning coffee. Instead of an on-site poster session, we have flash talks that allow the participants to present their research and network with each other. Also, I have realised it is important to ensure that breaks are long enough for everyone to get away from the screen and stretch – this is similar to an on-site course but I feel breaks are even more important in a virtual setting.

What is the biggest challenge of virtual courses?

A virtual course is more challenging to create a sense of community, which encourages efficient collaborative learning and networking. In a virtual setting, there is often the danger that participants might get lost and feel isolated. However, there are ways that we can work to avoid this. In the virtual Mathematics of Life course in 2020, we ran group projects, in which we organised participants in small groups into breakout rooms and gave them a project to work on during the week. These groups were supported by trainers who jumped in and out of the breakout rooms. At the end of the course, the groups presented their results to all of the course participants. The participants worked very collaboratively and highly appreciated the group work, which was reflected in the feedback survey. We have also learnt that some participants continued working on their projects after the course had finished. In addition, we also ran morning challenges that participants were asked to work on together in breakout rooms. The flash talks during the week enabled scientific networking.

What is something that in your opinion is better about virtual courses?

Virtual courses can be more inclusive than on-site courses. We can easily reach people worldwide, including scientists from low-to-middle-income countries (LMIC). Virtual courses can also be easier to attend for scientists with family or caring responsibilities.

Also, since we moved to virtual courses, I have delivered more training on my own and enjoy this. I feel very comfortable with delivering virtual training and love being creative and developing training activities like discussions and quizzes using a range of interactive virtual tools.

What do you miss most about on-site courses?

I am missing the non-virtual informal chats with participants and trainers. It is great to get to know so many people from all around the world and chat with them in person.

How do you see the future of EMBL-EBI Training courses? What are your hopes and thoughts? 

I am sure we will return to on-site training courses, but I do not think that virtual courses will disappear. By running both virtual and on-site courses we will be able to satisfy the diverse learning preferences of our trainees and allow more researchers to access our training.

Interested in joining one of our virtual courses, check out our upcoming courses here. 

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Why do we charge registration fees for virtual events?

“Why do you charge registration fees for virtual events? You are not flying speakers in, there are no accommodation or catering costs. You are not printing any conference material!” Yes, you are absolutely right! All of these are valid points in the world of virtual training. And yet we are still charging registration fees. Why?

As a non-profit organisation and with training being one of its five missions, EMBL sets its fees at the lowest possible level to just cover the costs of the events program. These are:

Staff

It sounds incredible, but virtual events turned out to be more time-intensive and demanding in terms of staff support than we thought. We are now busy scheduling test runs with speakers, populating virtual platforms, coordinating the timely and high-quality delivery of pre-recorded talks, providing technical support and trouble shooting – all things we didn’t have to do for onsite events, or previously had support with from our onsite service staff. In the past year, our team has even grown in order to be able to deliver the 31 virtual courses and conferences that took place in 2020.

Behind the Scenes at the EMBL Conference: Transcription and Chromatin (27 – 29 August 2020). Previously only one conference officer was the main coordinator of an onsite meeting. Now there are always two people onsite, splitting the tasks of monitoring and communication with the participants, speakers and audio-visual technicians.
Software

Unfortunately, virtual events cannot be run solely on Zoom. That would have made everything much easier, but attending a conference or course is so much more than listening to the talk. Participants look for interaction, networking options and avid peer exchange. So our courses’ and conferences’ programmes incorporate a range of networking and knowledge-exchange sessions such as meet-the speakers, bar mixers, pub quizzes, speed networking and poster sessions. In order to meet these requirements we make use of paid solutions which offer all these benefits and are easy to navigate for the users.

Training

New software means new set up in terms of design and maintenance, and to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible during the events our staff require appropriate and sufficient training to be able to operate it.

Sponsorship

With all our events turning virtual, income from sponsorship has decreased accordingly. Normally at a conference you would see several companies exhibiting in the Advanced Training Centre foyer, but with the meetings taking place entirely online, there has not been as much interest in virtual sponsorship. While we are being creative with what we can offer our sponsors, they also miss the face-to-face interaction with our participants.

Marketing

While the onsite costs have decreased, getting the word out still requires the same amount of budget (if not more!). How do we make sure you hear about us and the virtual meetings we are organising? How do we stand out from the other virtual events that are currently out there? Would you hear about our meeting if we used the traditional channels as before? In most cases, we have had to add on to our marketing channels and campaigns to increase awareness about our virtual programme.

Fellowships

EMBL offers various types of fellowships to support scientists to attend our events. An advantage of the virtual format is that with lower registration fees and no travel to cover, the funds stretch much further.  We are finding that we are able assist more applicants than ever before to attend entirely free of charge.

 

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Meet the Trainers – Tobias Rausch and Alexey Larionov

On the occasion of World Cancer Day (4 February), we meet two of the trainers of the virtual EMBL Course: Cancer Genomics  (17 – 21 May 2021) – Tobias Rausch and Alexey Larionov.

PHOTO: EMBL Photolab

Tobias Rausch (TR) received his PhD in “Computational Biology and Scientific Computing” at the International Max Planck Research School in 2009. He then started to work at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) as a bioinformatician. His primary research interests are population and cancer genomics, structural variant discovery and omics computational methods development. (https://github.com/tobiasrausch).

 

PHOTO: Alexey Larionov

Initially educated as a clinical oncologist in Russia, Alexey Larionov (AL) switched to  experimental oncology upon completion of his PhD. Initially he worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Edinburgh University studying transcriptomics of breast cancer, with a focus on markers and mechanisms of endocrine response and resistance.  Working with data-rich methods (qPCR, micro-arrays, NGS) he became interested in data analysis and switched to bioinformatics. Since completing his MSc in Applied Bioinformatics, Alexey has worked as a bioinformatician at Cambridge University, focusing on NGS data analysis and heritable predisposition to cancer. See http://larionov.co.uk for more details.

What is your research focus?

TR: Computational genomics.

ALHeritable predisposition to cancer

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

TR: When I started at EMBL I saw myself as a software engineer who loves to design, develop and implement algorithms to solve data analysis problems. With the advent of high-throughput sequencing, this engineering background gave me a competitive edge as a data scientist, and that’s how it happened!

ALIt was interesting…

Where do you see this field heading in the future?

TR: Nowadays cancer genomics is a data-driven team science, but it is a long way from obtaining data to obtaining insight. In the age of analytics we all have to wrap our heads around multi-domain data with spatio-temporal resolution, ideally in real-time.

AL: I assume that the question is about translational cancer research in general.  I expect that in the near future the field needs better integration of different types of biological data and better collection of relevant clinical data. 

How has training influenced your career?

TR: I think training is essential to get you started. Training is like a kind person who takes your hand and guides you through unknown territory. It goes along with mentorship and I was lucky enough to have good training and good mentorship already as a student.

ALSince my initial clinical and bioinformatics degrees, cancer research has changed so much that I would not be able to even understand current papers if I hadn’t taken regular in-depth training in different aspects of computing and bioinformatics. 

How has cancer research changed over the years?

TR: I hope I am still too young to answer that :-). I leave that question for Bert Vogelstein or Robert A. Weinberg.

ALCancer research has become much more complex and powerful because of the development of new methods; specifically significant progress in bioinformatics, sequencing and human genomics.

Which methods and new technologies will be addressed in the course?

TR: We try to give an overview of how high-throughput sequencing can be applied in cancer genomics. We cover a range of technologies (short-read and long-read sequencing), data types (RNA-Seq, DNA-Seq and ATAC-Seq) and data modalities (bulk and single-cell sequencing), and last but not least – we take a deep dive into cancer genomics data analysis.

ALIn my sections of the course, I will discuss established methods for the analysis of bulk RNA sequencing, focusing on differential gene expression.  Then I will touch on the new methods being developed for the analysis of long-read RNA sequencing.  

What learning outcomes should participants expect to take home after the course?

TR: To come back to my previous answer: I hope after the course, cancer genomics won’t be an unknown territory anymore for the participants. I hope we pave the way and then it’s up to the students to make something out of it.

ALIn my section of the course, participants will learn:

1) Bioinformatics algorithms and tools for QC, alignment, and gene expression measurement in bulk short-read RNA-sequencing data

2) Current approaches to analysis of long-read RNA-seq data, comparing the Oxford Nanopore and PacBio sequencing technologies.


Interested in this course? Apply by 26 February.

For more upcoming events on cancer research take a look at our event listing.

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EMBL’s Corporate Partnership Programme celebrates 10 years of impact

As EMBL’s Advanced Training Centre passes its 10th anniversary, Corporate Partnership Manager Jonathan Rothblatt reflects on the ATC Corporate Partnership Programme and how it promotes training for outstanding scientists.

Jonathan Rothblatt, Corporate Partnership Manager at EMBL. PHOTO: Jonathan Rothblatt

Since its opening in March 2010, the EMBL Advanced Training Centre (ATC) has served as a forum for the scientific exchange of new ideas, data, approaches and tools. An important component of this is the ATC Corporate Partnership Programme (CPP), which aims to connect companies with the latest developments in molecular biology and build successful long-term relationships between EMBL and corporate partners.

EMBL Advanced Training Centre built in 2010. PHOTO: KARL HUBER FOTODESIGN

Supporting outstanding scientists

The support that industry partners provide through their membership in the CPP, ensures that outstanding scientists – from PhD students to established investigators – are not excluded from attending a course or conference, or working in an EMBL laboratory as a visiting scientist, because of a lack of funds to cover conference fees or travel expenses. Since 2010, CPP funding has provided fellowships covering registration fees and travel costs to more than 2,100 participants from over 90 countries, attending more than 350 EMBL or EMBO courses, conferences, or symposia.

In addition to the significant impact of their financial support, the engagement and collaboration of corporate partners is crucial in the development and delivery of EMBL’s courses and conferences. For example, of the 33 training courses held at EMBL Heidelberg in 2019, 11 were co-organised with CPP partners. Another example is the EMBL Conference ‘Expanding the Druggable Proteome with Chemical Biology’, which took place in February 2020. This conference, co-funded by the CPP, explored advances at the interface between academic and industry research. The scientific organisers included two CPP partners alongside academic leaders in the field (read the interview with one of the organisers Gerard Drewes here and check out the winning posters here).

Building mutually beneficial relationships

The strong involvement of EMBL scientists at all levels is another crucial factor in enabling the CPP to establish and develop mutually beneficial relationships with its corporate partners. The alliance of the CPP with its corporate partners is one facet of EMBL’s engagement with industry – in particular the life sciences business sector. This compliments the activities of EMBL’s technology transfer partner EMBLEM, the EMBL Course and Conference Office, the EMBL-EBI Industry Programme, and direct interactions with industry partners by EMBL group and team leaders and heads of core facilities.

With two new partners joining the CPP in 2019 and another already this year, the CPP has grown to 19 members, bringing together EMBL and global leaders in a range of business sectors, including biopharmaceuticals, diagnostics, information technology, research and clinical instrumentation, and laboratory products.

Members of the EMBL ATC Corporate Partnership Programme

We look forward to seeing the programme continue to evolve and grow in future years, always striving to deliver outstanding value and maintain its impact on the future of science.

For further information, contact Jonathan Rothblatt (jonathan.rothblatt@embl.de, +49 6221 387 8799), or visit embl.org/cpp.

This article was originally published in Issue 95 of EMBLetc. magazine.

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