OIST researchers help organize a data science summer school in Ukraine

The two-week summer school supported young Ukrainian scientists in improving their bioinformatics skills

Ukraine summer school participant group photo 2023

Prof. Fyodor Kondrashov, leader of the Evolutionary and Synthetic Biology Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST), is no stranger to educational outreach activities, having organized his first summer school at the age of fifteen. Since 2000, he has helped organize and participated in more than 20 different summer school programs in 7 countries. 

Recently, he helped organize and participated in a two-week biological data science summer school based at Uzhhorod National University in Uzhhorod, a city in western Ukraine, from 2-14 July 2023.  

Lada Isakova, a former intern at the Evolutionary and Synthetic Biology Unit from Ukraine and alumnus of one of Prof. Kondrashov’s summer schools, led a course on the programing language Python and helped organize the event. She will rejoin the unit as a researcher in August to study gene and protein evolution. 

The summer school program was aimed at young Ukrainian researchers countrywide with backgrounds in the fields of biology, mathematics, or computer science, interested in gaining and improving their skills in bioinformatics and biological data analysis. Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field of science that develops and applies methods and software tools for understanding biological data, especially when the data sets are large and complex.   

Students were taught basic and advanced methods of bioinformatics and computational data analysis. The courses included lectures covering important theory and concepts, and practical hands-on exercises, with students getting the chance to interact with scientists from around the world. 

“We taught the underlying basic tools but on top of these we taught additional skills such as how to do proper statistical analysis and machine learning. There were several independent tracks that the students could select based on their research projects,” Prof. Kondrashov explained. 

Lada Isakova and Prof. Fyodor Kondrashov
Lada Isakova and Prof. Fyodor Kondrashov helped organize and participated in a two-week summer school in Uzhhorod, Ukraine.

The course had both an English and Ukrainian-speaking program running in parallel with each other. Students were mostly undergraduates, with some master's students and a few professionals from Ukraine joining. The English-speaking program was led by international faculty and the Ukrainian-speaking program was led by senior Ukrainian postgraduate students, most of whom work and study abroad. 

“Most students were beginner programmers and didn’t have any experience in informatics before. They learnt the basic formats of the data, for example we taught students how to work with biological sequences - single, continuous molecules of nucleic acids or proteins, how to compare them, and gave them background on why we study the evolution of the sequences,” Lada explained.  

“We organized two different groups of faculty for the first and second weeks of the school. This was great for diversity as students got to interact with a variety of scientists.” Plenary lectures given by faculty, Ukrainian students and invited professors were held every morning. 

Lada further explained that her path in science was influenced by attending a summer school like this one. “I participated in a summer school program as a high school student, and it was my first real experience abroad and one of my first experiences with international science. It showed me that scientists are interesting and fun people and influenced my decision to study science and my research topic.” 

 “I am from Ukraine and I think this is an amazing event for science and bioinformatics in the country, which can bring students who are interested in this together and link Ukrainian bioinformatics with international science. I’m very excited that we can do that,” she said. 

Prof. Kondrashov stated that it’s important to create consistent, systematic support for Ukrainian scientists, especially through remote opportunities, as Ukrainian men between the ages of 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country because of the war. “This kind of support can hopefully help young Ukrainian scientists continue to focus on their passion for science in the long term and not abandon their studies due to the psychological stress of the war”.  

“With my many years of experience organizing these types of events, it became natural to extend this to doing something for students in Ukraine, applying my skills to try to help in a way that I know how to,” he explained. “We may be the first international science school since the start of the invasion, so this is an opportunity for us to help support the local scientific community by physically being in the country, but also a sign to the international community that we can consider doing these activities physically in Ukraine.” 

In March 2022, OIST established the Ukraine Scholar and Student Support Fund to enable OIST to host scholars and students on a temporary and humanitarian basis, as well as support Ukrainian staff and students already at OIST.   

For more information on the summer school see here: Bio Data Science^3 (bds3.org) 

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