Outreach is, by its definition, tied to identifying and serving under-served populations. How does Ensembl address that? We provide services to communities who might not otherwise have access to those services through scientific outreach in low-middle income countries (LMIC) and by public engagement in groups that might lack science exposure. We provide training materials, tutorials and helpdesk support, spread awareness on social media and run webinars, as well as classroom workshops around the world. Our resources are open source and open access, freely available to anyone.
Getting around HIC bias
The main beneficiary of our resources, however, have been high income countries (HICs), especially when it comes to courses (90% of workshops delivered in years 2009-2017 were hosted by HICs). Although we don’t charge for Ensembl workshops, we asked our hosts to pay for the expenses of the trip (travel, accommodation and subsistence). This might not always be feasible in low-middle income countries (LMICs). Out of those remaining 10% of courses delivered in LMICs, most have been funded by external sources. Let’s face it, it’s not OK when ‘around the world’ comes down to ‘around the high-income countries’. How to get around this bias? A real game changer came in May 2018, when Ensembl was awarded a grant from the Wellcome Trust to deliver training in LMICs at no charge. It’s been over a year since then – so where are we now? I must say without a doubt, the last 1.5 years were a big success. The percentage of courses delivered in LMICs rose from 10% to over 30% in 2018 and over 40% in 2019. The grant enabled us to deliver 78 courses and train over 3000 participants in LMICs so far (as many as in 2009-2017 combined).
As well as our standard Ensembl browser and Ensembl REST API courses, we’ve been also offering a new Train the Trainer course (TtT). Following the ancient Chinese proverb: “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, TtT workshop aims to enable individuals at the host institutes to deliver their own Ensembl training courses, allowing the knowledge and skills they learn to be passed on even if we don’t come back ourselves. These are especially beneficial in LMICs where funds to bring over our Ensembl trainers on a regular basis are limited. As a largely practical course, it’s been designed to accommodate six keen participants per session, enthusiastic about delivering Ensembl training in the future. We delivered nine TtT courses across six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Ghana, Malaysia, Morocco and Nigeria) and trained a total of 61 trainers since May 2018. Considering the fact we only have four trainers in-house, the long-term impact of TtT course is potentially enormous. We surveyed participants of the TtT and found that out of 15 new trainers, half have delivered a training in the past year, while most others are planning to do so. They delivered a total of 13 courses, training 157 people. The overwhelmingly positive feedback and confidence of our fresh trainees to deliver the Ensembl training is not only very rewarding, but also ensuring that TtT makes a real change. If you’d like to invite us to deliver a workshop, regardless of where in the world you are, please get in touch.
Making a change around the corner
It’s less known that Ensemblers occasionally get involved in public engagement and science communication on voluntary basis. It’s more about community service and bringing science to non-specialists rather than Ensembl itself. We spread genomic awareness by attending science festivals and exhibitions, talking to school children, University of the Third Age groups, Women’s Institutes and artists looking for inspiration in the world of science. We got involved in projects addressing the lack of diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by organising coding workshop for women. Yet again, those attending such events, are often well exposed to science and have good access to those services. How do we reach out to under-served communities lacking such exposure?
Carmen Diaz Soria, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, tried to tackle this problem. She has been recently awarded an Enabling Fund grant from the Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement team and started the Golden Eagle project aiming at taking scientists into prisons to talk to residents and their families. Carmen said she wants “to work with kids and families that can normally be quite alienated from science engagement activities”. She’d like to “inspire kids and want them to know they can do well, even though they are having a really tough time now”.
I had an opportunity of joining Carmen on two occasions and it was truly exceptional. We were invited to attend a family visit day at a local prison when families visit residents, often accompanied by various activities. We came armed with DIY foldoscopes that the kids could take home with them. We also brought in a standard microscope and slides with parasites so that people could take a closer look and compare the two. The received feedback was overwhelmingly positive and Carmen’s already planning next visits. What’s in it for me? The most amazing and inspiring chat with a 10-year-old passionately lecturing me about Alan Turing, climate change and suffragette movement in a prison somewhere in East Anglia. Not to be forgotten. If you’re based in the UK and would like to get involved in projects like this, sign up here. For those working at the Wellcome Genome Campus, check out opportunities at your doorstep and follow the link if you’re interested in becoming a STEM ambassador.