'Intensive', 'Comprehensive', 'Fulfilling' and 'Exciting' were just some of the words used by students to describe the first Bioinformatics course hosted by the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for TB and HIV (K-RITH) in partnership with the US-based Broad Institute and the NIH recently.
Faculty of the TB Genomics & Bioinformatics workshop included Prof. Bruce Birren and his team from Broad/MIT institute and Prof. Tulio de Oliveira and Dr. Eduan Wilkinson from Wellcome Trust Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, UKZN.
The course brought together 45 outstanding research students from across Africa to spend a rigorous week advancing their ability to analyse biological data.
'BioMedical research is undergoing a revolution' says course instructor Bruce Birren, who is Director of the Genomic Sequencing Center for Infectious Diseases at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. 'As much as anything, it is becoming an information science, where it is now possible to produce and access huge amounts of genomic data. Powerful analytical tools are being developed to help mine these data to reveal the biological and clinical significance of genome information.'
Bioinformatics uses computational science, mathematics, engineering and statistics to provide these tools. When combined with functional information from biological studies, its interdisciplinary approach has the potential to have a major impact on how we study diseases such as TB and HIV.
'TB is a problem that is too big to be solved by a single discipline,' says Birren, 'and thus it is crucial that we actively recruit researchers across discipline boundaries. The Broad has a history of sharing tools, promoting collaboration and working together.'
'K-RITH has had the pleasure of collaborating with the Broad Institute over the past few years,' says K-RITH Education and Training Director, Dr. Victoria Kasprowicz. 'Our joint partnership on the delivery of this bioinformatics course is just another example of how international collaboration and an inter-disciplinary approach can help to build capacity amongst scientists in Africa.'
Course participant Imane Allali who came all the way from Morocco to attend the course said that she found the course interesting and hands-on and the speakers and teaching assistants attentive and helpful. Currently in the second year of her PhD in bioinformatics, Imane who won the UNESCO-L'Oreal fellowship for the best female PhD student in Morocco in December 2012, was particularly impressed by the practical afternoon sessions. 'The techniques we have learnt apply directly to my research and it is helpful to apply what we have learnt in the morning to more practical examples in the afternoon,' she said. 'I specifically benefitted from learning more about Linux and the commands that it uses.'
'It has been a privilege to have the chance to interact with students this smart and open to new methods,' says Birren. 'Our participants are young, fearless, and phenomenal. They really are the cream of the crop and our Instructors had to up the ante to keep up.'
'K-RITH is very gratified by the positive reception this course has had,' says Interim Director Dr. Dennis McKearin. 'We hope to be able to host more courses like this one over the coming months and year.'