Our universe of observation consists of people that enrolled in short Bioinformatics hands-on training courses of the GTPB programme (over 2000 participants) [1
]. Participants in these courses provide feedback through questionnaires at the end of each course, aimed at making improvements in the training methods. This kind of feedback is also very useful to show the evolving needs of participants, immediately after exposure to training, but they cannot possibly reveal the long-term effects that require time to settle in, and more contact with experimental laboratory life. To further explore the effects of training, occasional follow-up contacts with course participants have allowed us to directly observe changes in research attitudes. Our observations are further extended by contacts with experimental biologists that never took our courses but participated in live debates on issues related to the roles and missions of Bioinformatics [2
The vast majority of the audience in GTPB courses consists of experimental biologists that are looking for effective ways of using Bioinformatics in their research. In broad terms, these course participants expect to acquire practical skills that can be used with independence, in combination with laboratory bench work. These expectations, when met, should allow them to perform their jobs better. But, actually quite often, they realize and report back that this exposure to training has brought them to a new attitude towards finding added value in the uses of biological information and enhanced ways of extracting knowledge from it.
One of the above mentioned follow-up contacts was conducted recently by surveying former course participants using e-mail. A set of questions was sent to 200 former participants, randomly chosen from a pool of 481 that attended GTPB courses since January 2010. All the responders (53) were inquired some time later than the course participation, allowing for the chance to apply the newly acquired skills. The aim was to gather some information on the real use of those skills after each course and, among other monitoring objectives, to detect possible changes in their research attitudes. Our sample consisted of 38 people that declared that they are wet-lab biologists, and the results are displayed in .
Results of the survey on former course participants 2010-2011 (n = 38).
The results of the survey show
- a quite widespread perception of a positive impact of training in each participant's work;
- a high level of self-consciousness regarding a change in research attitude;
- a relatively high number of publications in less than two years;
- enrollment in more training events (further interest) being generated.
Naturally, the reasons for an affirmative answer in Q2 are diverse. In several of these reasons are listed for comparison.
Sample responses regarding the reasons for the observed change (“redundant” answers have been omitted for clarity).
This collection of answers is useful in revealing how different viewpoints are used to justify change in attitudes. The simplest ones are the direct awareness of the ability to try using the newly acquired methods without constraints (as in A6 or A9). More elaborate answers reveal a deeper change, with a deeper consequence in the way of thinking about connected problems (A2) and Biology in general (A7).
This suggests that such changes in research attitudes, not being deliberately imposed, may result from the exposure to the methodologies, often shaped by the way in which the instructors decide to address the subjects. Usually, in GTPB, the instructors are asked not to explore the subjects very deeply, using the lectures to convey a conceptual framework in which the skills may fit. In many cases this is just what is needed to make the attendees understand how adequate the methods are, and how limited they can be in usage, before jumping into a hands-on exercise. Knowing who the attendees are and giving them a small amount of individual attention, the instructors can use the course as a way to help the attendees in finding appropriate changes in their research attitudes.
In Bioinformatics, these changes happen easily. With the exposure to abundant and diverse information resources, training course participants can often realize the importance of observing a phenomenon from different viewpoints and at different levels. Similarly, while switching between reductionist approaches and network or systems level ones, trained Bioinformatics practitioners can more easily find ways of deciding which is best at each stage of a research job. Another aspect concerns the use of techniques, as it is relatively easy to ask questions on hypothesis generation and testing, that the participants can perceive as ways to place the results of their experiments in full perspective, compare simulated results with experimental observations, and evaluate the predictive power and extrapolation of in silico