Bioinformatic speed-dating

Event connects medicine, biology, big data and technology to generate opportunities for cross-disciplinary research and collaboration.

Organising committee members and sponsors: from left to right, Dr Fatemeh Vafaee (Science), Prof Mark Tanaka (Acting Head of the School of BABS), Dr Emily Oates (Science), A/Prof Vanessa Venturi (Medicine), Richard Edwards (Science), Prof Maurice Pagnucco (Head of the School of CSE), A/Prof Fabio Luciani (Medicine), A/Prof Chun Tung Chou (Engineering), Dr Bruno Gaeta (Engineering)

Over 120 researchers, clinicians and postgraduate students from 30 different schools, centres and institutes across UNSW recently came together to share their experience and challenges across the field of bioinformatics. The event aimed to showcase the research happening across the university, connect different skill sets, and enhance opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration.

With ample opportunity for professional matchmaking, researchers gave over 22 short, sharp presentations to their colleagues. Presenters highlighted their research interests, areas of challenge and opportunities for collaboration.

Dr Fatemeh Vafaee, Senior Lecturer in Computational Biology from the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, led the event’s organising committee.

“We hosted the event because we wanted to increase awareness around the many activities being undertaken by researchers and clinicians that are either bioinformatics-based or have a bioinformatics need,” Fatemeh said. “It’s a unique opportunity that has allowed us to share our respective expertise and facilitate cross-faculty collaboration.”  

Half of the attendees submitted a slide to be displayed during the matchmaking lunch indicating an interest and need to collaborate in the field.  After the event, 81 per cent of those surveyed and interested were matched, and 70 per cent of those connections were cross-faculty/institute.

A relatively new field of study, bioinformatics combines elements of biology and computer science.  It underpins and enables research across the life sciences.  This ranges from sciences featuring genomics, proteomics and the other “omics” (regulation of gene activity, epigenetics, protein and RNA structure and function, cell organisation) to comparative, evolutionary and systems biology. Bioinformatics uses computers, software and databases to answer big biological/biomedical questions.  It has real-world applications in the development of personalised and preventative medicine, drug development, evolutionary studies, climate change, waste clean-up and a range of other research areas.  

Bioinformatics lies in the middle of biology, molecular medicine, computer science, maths and statistics. It intrinsically requires experts to come together from faculties of engineering, biology and medicine. Because bioinformatics offers a wide range of research opportunity, the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaboration are endless.  The purpose of the event was to showcase what is happening in the field at UNSW, where researchers might need help, and to create broader opportunity for discovery and application. 

Supported by the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences and the School of Computer Science and Engineering, the conference featured an opening address by Professor Nicholas Fisk (Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research) and three keynote speeches from Professor Mark Wilkins (Head of Proteomics and Director of the Ramaciotti Centre for Genomics), Professor Susan Ramus (Molecular Oncology, School of Women’s and Children’s Health) and Dr Martin Smith (Head of Genomic Technologies, Garvan Institute of Medical Research).

Fatemeh believes the event will inspire future research projects, “We’ve helped bring people together from Science, Medicine and Engineering who shared their respective projects across the disciplines,” she said, “We look to seeing the outcomes of any matchmaking that’s occurred from the event and then sharing these successes with the bioinformatic and greater UNSW community.”

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