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Young researchers are equipped to participate in projects relevant in global context
2017-09-05

 Description: Wheat genomics Tags: bioinformatics, Dr Renée Prins, Department of Plant Sciences, DNA and RNA, data sets 

This group of early career researchers received bioinformatics
training in Worcester in the UK from Dr Diane Saunders of the
John Innes Centre in the UK.
Photo: Supplied

The interdisciplinary field that develops methods and software tools to understand biological data is known as bioinformatics. According to Dr Renée Prins, a research fellow in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State, there are few tertiary institutions in South Africa that offer a postgraduate degree in Bioinformatics.

“Most institutions focus either on humans, human diseases, forest trees and their pathogens.  They usually do not have spare capacity to assist researchers, for instance, those working on crops in the agricultural sector,” Dr Prins said.

Big data sets need significant skills

With the advancements made in genomics such as high throughput DNA marker platforms and next-generation sequencing technologies, the data sets biologists have to deal with have grown massively big and cannot be dealt with unless you have significant computer skills.

Dr Prins believes that all young researchers need some level of training in this field to be effective in future. The British Council Researcher Links, being run by the Newton Fund, gives early career researchers across selected partner countries the opportunity to form international connections through fully funded workshops and travel grants. Dr Prins made use of this opportunity and with the assistance of the Department of Research Development at the UFS, she arranged for Dr Diane Saunders of the John Innes Centre in the UK, a bioinformatician of note, to present training to a group of 20 early career researchers in Worcester in the UK.

Providing training with Dr Saunders were two other bioinformaticians from the UK, Dr Burkhard Steuernagel (John Innes Centre) and Dr Robert Davey (Earlham Institute). From the UFS side, Eleanor van der Westhuizen and Dr Henriëtte van den Berg (former UFS academic) acted as mentors, providing guidance on funding opportunities and career development skills.

Participating in projects in a global context
The researchers attending the training came from research institutions or academia, and they work involving plants (predominantly wheat) or plant pathogens. A limited number of participants from the commercial sector, including private South African companies focusing on plant breeding and molecular genetics lab work on agriculturally important crops also benefited from the training. 

“Tertiary institutions in South Africa have the obligation to ensure that young scientists are equipped with bioinformatics skills. If they are not equipped with the necessary skills, they will not be able to participate in research projects that are relevant in a global context,” said Dr Prins. 

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