A virtual R course with Leo

Many of us find ourselves with the opportunity to learn a new skill while we are working from home. Bioinformatics is central to much of the research at CBMR, and is a specialist skill that takes many years of training and experience – so much so that many lab scientists don’t get the chance to train in bioinformatics (and vice versa). 

A photo of a laptop with the caption, Learning a new skill from the home office.
Learning a new skill from the home office

Leonidas Lundell and Lars Ingerslev, who are both bioinformaticians in the Barrès Group, decided to share their programming expertise and teach the basics of programming in R (a popular and useful programming platform) with three other members of the group. Unusually, they have a background as bench scientists, and so understand how challenging it can be when starting out.

They thought it would be a good idea to teach researchers to solve some common problems they face when processing their data – to take some of the workload off the bioinformaticians! For example, they taught the basics of plotting so that researchers can modify figures themselves and the basics of processing microarray data. Of course, the main goal was to pass on programming skills to researchers who might otherwise not have the chance to learn them. 

Ann Normann Hansen, who participated in the course, says: “We are learning things that are potentially very relevant for molecular biologists to use, such as visualizing data in different ways, sub-setting and converting data into different formats, and creating nice and consistent looking plots. Seen from a group-perspective it is also a win-win (hopefully!), as teaching us non-bioinformaticians some basic R programming skills could help relieve some of the very common tasks for the bioinformaticians. As we all know, they are very popular and busy guys!”

A screenshot of the program microsoft teams through which Leo is teaching the programming language R.

Learning to program in R on Microsoft Teams

During the course, Leo was surprised that the virtual format actually had a key strength over traditional classroom teaching. People can individually share their screens if they have a problem, and the other students get to follow the problem-solving process. This is in contrast with traditional classroom-settings,  where individual troubleshooting is rarely shared amongst the class.

Ann echoed this advantage: “A good thing about learning to code ‘virtually’ is that we are a small group of people, which makes it a lot easier to ask questions. I wouldn’t have necessarily had this opportunity if I was sitting in a big class with lots of people, and it also feels more comfortable. The small-format ‘meetings’ also allow us to easily share our screens and codes with each other, for example when Leo and Lars are going over new topics, when we discuss specific exercises, or if we are stuck on a question. Also, by learning to code this way, we have a good opportunity for seeing and discussing different ways of solving the same question.”

As well as this initiative from the Barrès group, there are lots of ways researchers can learn new things during the lockdown. There are a number of online seminar series, for example @EcoEvoSeminars, whichare open to researchers from all disciplines, giving people the chance to step out of their comfort zone and hear from experts. Leo also suggests ‘The Science of Well Being’ course, hosted by Yale University – if you fancy something a little different! Ann sums up how the lockdown has impacted her thinking: “Looking at all of this in a positive way: instead of being busy with many of the weekly tasks we would normally do if we were in the lab, we have more time and opportunity to learn new things – both individually and together, such as having our little R course”.