Bioinformatics is an exciting area of science placed at the junction of computing, biology and mathematics. It uses computing science and programming to process and analyse biological data such as DNA. Yet despite it being 200 years since the birth of Ada Lovelace, widely considered to be the first computer programmer, bioinformatics, as well as science, in general, remains a male-dominated workplace.
To address this imbalance and ensure that inquisitive young minds, both with and without a Y chromosome, are inspired to continue their studies in science, it is vital to counter any misconceptions about gender barriers within the industry.
Keen to play its part in engaging female students in science, TGAC welcomed Year 9 pupils from the City Academy Norwich for its Women in Bioinformatics Day. Three female Bioinformaticians from TGAC: Sarah Bastkowski, Dharanya Sampath and Purnima Caim met the students to talk about their research and answer questions regarding their own personal career experiences.
The students also got a taste of the work carried out by bioinformaticians through a presentation about the software tool BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool). Researchers use BLAST to identify similarities in DNA or proteins. Next, the students got hands-on with a classification activity, concluding the event with a tour of TGAC’s impressive Data Centre led by Paul Fretter, Science Computing Team Leader at NBI.
“It was inspiring to see how interested the City Academy girls were in computing and to talk to them about their experiences. Some of them had already programmed laboratory robots using the programming language ‘C++ ‘, therefore, it was exciting the bioinformaticians were able to show them how these skills can be applied in the field of biology and the type of job prospects open to the girls which they may not have considered before,” said Peter Bickerton, Education and Public Engagement Officer at TGAC.
“The feedback we got from the students was entirely positive and all said they had learned something, especially the nature of bioinformatics, biomathematics and genome analysis. They particularly enjoyed seeing TGAC’s sequencing machines and our massive computing capacity thanks to Paul’s tour of the Data Centre. Overall the day was a very encouraging experience for both the City Academy pupils and TGAC, especially as we look to foster a greater awareness of the important work we do.”
Dharanya Sampath, Scientific Programmer in the Crop Genomics and Diversity group at TGAC, said: “Sharing my adventures for a woman in science to the students was a great experience. They were curious about different career paths available in the science field and also how valuable a doctorate degree is. I am quite surprised by the fact that only 22% of women’s population are in science field, I hope this changes in the near future.”
Sarah Bastkowski, Biomathematician in the Regulatory & Genomics group at TGAC, commented: “When I was in school I kept questioning my teachers until knowledge limits were reached, this made me want to investigate further and conduct research in my later career. It is important to encourage young women to be curious and ask questions, and not be intimidated. I hope we made and continue to make a contribution to achieving this goal with events like the Women in Bioinformatics day at TGAC.”
Purnima Caim, Scientific Programmer in the Platforms & Pipelines group, added: "I think it is really important to encourage girls to take up bioinformatics, I hope through our experience, we managed to showcase that it is an exciting field. They enjoyed doing coding and I think that can be a great start to their future scientific career.