Meet the speaker: Mr Jason Williams
Ahead of his presentations at AMSI BioInfoSummer 2018, Jason Williams from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, USA shares with us what drives his work in the bioinformatics education and training field as well as current challenges and the important skills required of researchers.
Tell me about your work. What drives your interest in this field?
Connecting students and researchers with data skills are what drive my day-to-day work. At Cold Spring Harbor I started in the research arena, then made the move to the Learning Center – a unit within the lab with the mission of preparing people to live in the “gene age”. Discoveries in the life sciences won’t just affect the choices we make about healthcare, but literally our ability to live on a planet facing a growing population and a changing climate. My contribution to these efforts ranges from reaching high school students directly – developing opportunities to learn biology in a hands-on way, to working with researchers who are by nature life-long students. Increasingly for both groups, one of the best ways to foster progress is through building bioinformatics and data science skills. Although computers and the Internet are parts of our everyday lives, leveraging computing to learn and do science is still not an integral part of most biologist’s formal preparation. I work to improve the undergraduate curriculum in biology – infusing it with more computational skills – in ways that will have national and international impact. Through communities like The Carpentries, I’m also working to accelerate science by improving how research professionals learn on a global scale.
What are the most interesting “big questions” or challenges facing researchers in your area?
I have worked with groups in the US to study both the bioinformatics competencies that the undergraduate curriculum should include, as well as the barriers educators face in delivering this education. We know that training for a variety of data skills is the biggest unmet need for researchers who now need this training to keep pace with our ability to produce data exponentially faster and at lower cost. We don’t have a full understanding of the best ways to satisfy these needs. Recent studies suggest that many of our informal training methods are inadequate. Since faculty won’t be going back to college we need to better understand how to bridge the gap between these expert researchers and educators and the skills they need to apply new and increasingly complex methods – from high-performance computing, to machine learning.
What are some key industry applications of your work?
Industry is an exciting topic but with the exception of pharma it may be removed from what biologist frequently think about. A commonality between industry, my work, and biology is data science. Data Science is a product of the tech sector – although many in academia are undergoing a rebrand to signal that they have ‘always’ been doing data science. Companies small-and-large are creating tools and computational resources that far surpass the scales we are used to working with in academia. This is why a small startup with no staff can take software (built by others) and an idea and build it into a successful product. Previously, academia’s large software/computing applications have been very focused HPC applications (e.g. simulations in chemistry in physics). Now, I think biologists are the startups. They can take their idea (which may be a small area of biology, a genome, a metabolic process) and leverage commercial computing and software infrastructure to solve novel problems. The human resources – people trained with data science skills, can operate in overlapping spaces, with students having career opportunities in the tech sector and with tech sector solutions finding reuse in genomics and healthcare.
What advice do you have for future researchers?
While Moore’s law is a well-known rule describing how often our computing capacity doubles, I’m not aware of an equally simple metric for capturing how quickly our knowledge and approaches to research are changing in science; clearly, we are on an exponential trend. We need to move away from thinking our schooling at any given point will allow us to comfortably understand the tools we will be using 5 years from now. While in some ways this confronts us with a potentially unwinnable battle, I hope that folks see two opportunities. I’ve heard it said that the most important skill of the 21st century will be the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. That said, one thing we should take time to do is learn about how to learn (and teach) effectively – metacognition. The second opportunity is to move as far away as possible from science as product of a individuals, and towards science as an effort of communities where people have learned to work in teams and value diversity of abilities, perspectives, and ideas.
Jason is Assistant Director – External Collaborations of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center, and is the Education, Outreach, and Training lead for CyVerse (A U.S. national life science cyberinfrastructure project funded by NSF). Jason organizes, instructs, and speaks at a variety of bioinformatics-related workshops, conferences, and meetings annually. He also serves in an advisory capacity on a variety of bioinformatics and open science projects including his service as Chair of the International Science Advisory Board for EMBL-Australian Bioinformatics Resource. He also serves on the External Panel of Consultants to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Data Commons Initiative and the NIH’s National Heart Lung and Blood Institute’s Data STAGE (Storage, Toolspace, Access and analytics for biG data Empowerment). He is an active Software and Data Carpentry instructor, and a former Chair of the Software Carpentry foundation. Jason also teaches at the Yeshiva University High School for Girls.
Mr Jason Williams
Assistant Director, External Collaborations, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, DNA Learning Center
Jason will present on ‘Improving the Bioinformatics Curriculum‘ and run an ‘Introduction to RNA-Seq with the Kallisto and Sleuth workflows‘ workshop at AMSI BioInfoSummer 2018 which will be held at The University of Western Australia, Perth from 3-7 December.