Biological Polymaths

(November 3rd, 2016) In the age of big data and systems biology, mathematical and programming know-how becomes increasingly important. The new online platform SysMIC teaches biologists new computing tricks.

Have you noticed how biology, in our day, is full of words that do not stem from biology? Matlab, bistable switches, stochasticity. Being a biologist nowadays is not only about working interdisciplinarily, but rather thinking interdisciplinarily. We only have one life to live, however, and nobody can, simultaneously, get degrees in engineering, material science, mathematics, statistics, biochemistry, computer science… although Leonardo da Vinci probably would, were he alive and working in a biomedical lab. For the rest of us, there’s an increasing demand for skills that no one mentioned in our biology syllabus during high school or college, such as programming skills and a reasonable level of biomathematics. (I wonder how many of us asked “where should I start if I want to become a cell biologist?” just to obtain the reply: “learn to program computers!”).

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) of the UK realised, in 2011, that it was time to support all those graduate students drawing biological networks on napkins and struggling with data analysis software, Matlab. In a very unusual bid, the BBSRC offered to fund the best idea for the development of an online distance-learning course to teach the computational skills needed in the age of systems biology. The winner was SysMIC, an online learning platform created by the consortium of the University College London (UCL); Birkbeck, University of London and the Open University.

SysMIC is part human, part machine. At first, one might think it is like any Open Online Course, because most of the information exchange flows through the internet. Human interaction is, however, required and encouraged. Past and present students communicate among them in forums, sharing experiences and opinions. Instructors monitor directly the students that may lag, helping them to keep up with the schedule and providing support.

The syllabus of the course comprises two modules plus an individual research project. Basic mathematical skills and programming for biology are covered first, and then advanced topics from computational modelling and data handling are presented. After the first module, students are able to use computers to deal with graph theory in network biology and with the multivariate high-throughput data sets arising from the ‘-omics’ technologies. After the second module, students acquire advanced programming skills for understanding the dynamic biological systems. The Moodle open source learning platform is used to access the course materials via a web portal but there’s always the good old pdf files, for those who prefer static information. At the end of the modules, the students present a mini project report that determines whether the course was completed satisfactorily, or whether instructor and student must revisit some part of the syllabus together. The final individual research project allows the student to apply all the new skills.

The platform, now in its fifth year, has achieved what no other online course has done. Its rate of completion is 50%, far beyond the average 6.5% for open online courses. Most of the students are between 24 and 35 years old, and from all stages of the scientific career; practically half of them are women. In other words, SysMIC speaks clearly to the youth and empowers girls in science.

Now, this approach is catching the attention of biomedical research centres, industry and researchers. In principle, any institution or individual willing to invest the £1,250 fee per module can participate and become a proficient biologist of the 21st century. Maybe in the future, SysMIC could be expanded to other areas of science but, for now, it’s an excellent tool to get biologists into the highly interconnected, big data world out there.


Photo: Marc Chouinard

Last Changes: 11.29.2016