Palmy Bioinfo Meeting – What we do and how we do it.
This document is meant to be a description of our monthly meeting. We have written it because others have expressed interest in holding similar meetings and we are happy to share our experience. It is not meant to be prescriptive. Please use what you like and create communities that work for your situation.
The Palmerston North Bioinformatics Meeting is a monthly gathering of people interested in bioinformatic and computational science to discuss the practice and profession of these kinds of science. It is an informal forum organised and sponsored by The Elshire Group for sharing ideas and helping each other learn. Sometimes it is like a journal club. Other times it is like a practical lab meeting where one presents a particularly sticky problem to solve. It has even been a research collective.
The meeting started in September of 2015 with a very small group made up primarily of men whose day to day work was doing bioinformatics. At this writing (4 years in), there are about 40 people on the mailing list. These include a good mix of genders, career stages, national origins, skill levels, etc. Our diversity is a great strength. Within the group, there is a broad range of deep experience.
The group is self selecting. People come to the meeting because they want to and when they can.
There is no expectation that participants will have any expertise in bioinformatics whatsoever. If someone is interested, then they are welcome to participate in the meeting. We make every effort to make it easy and comfortable to be part of the group. A key principle is to eliminate or reduce barriers to participation.
While it is informal, the group has a set of social norms which are fundamental to the success of the meeting. This cannot be over-emphasised. One is that the social norms should be made explicit. This is done at the beginning of meetings where new people attend typically with these two statements: “Sometimes people will present / talk about sensitive or confidential topics. We foster an environment where people can do that by a simple rule that if one would like to talk about something that might be sensitive outside the group, that they ask the person who presented the topic for permission to do so.” and “Everyone here is smart and kind. Don’t distinguish yourself by being otherwise.”
We also mention the following things in one way or another as needed for additional clarity.
- We are kind to one another.
- We are honest with one another.
- We are trustworthy.
- We help one another.
- Institutional / employer hats are left at the door.
- We use given names rather than titles.
- Everyone has a responsibility to ensure others are comfortable.
- Everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to contribute, and can if they would like to.
The meeting has been going long enough now, that people have an expectation of positive behaviour and a welcoming environment such that it is self-reinforcing.
The topics of the meeting have been very broad and sometimes beyond bioinformatics or computational research. The field of bioinformatics itself is broad and touches on most aspects of biological research. It has societal as well as technical aspects. We are very flexible in what might be presented. The meeting works very well when the topics are driven by the group. This has been increasingly the case over time. People find presenting to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience which encourages others to present.
We have no expectation of who or how many will come for any given meeting. We do not do RSVPs. This way people can come when they like or have time without feeling obligated one way or another. We also understand people have outside circumstances that may require them to arrive late or leave early. Sometimes people need to bring a child along to be able to attend the meeting.
The meeting is held at The Elshire Group World Headquarters. This is our home / home office. It is a neutral place with no administrative demands. This was a key part of the suggestions from Patrick Biggs and Helge Dzierzon to start this meeting and it seems to be important. Cats also seem to be important.
We have a projector and screen as well as a clicker to change slides. We provide a variety of snacks and beverages which are essential. The Elshire Group covers the cost of the refreshments which runs about $80 per meeting. There were suggestions early on that people might contribute funds to the snacks. We decided against that as it would be one more thing to do in relation to the meeting and might create some expectation of donating which could discourage some from attending.
For the meeting to have longevity, there needs to be someone to do the organising. That person has to have a drive and commitment to making sure the necessary things are done. Keeping the number of things that need to be done small and uncomplicated makes this easier. Rob has had this role for this meeting. The key responsibilities are to ensure there is a meeting every month (except December) and that there is a speaker or topic for the meeting. If no other speaker or topic is forthcoming, it is up to him to present. This provides great incentive to find someone to present.
Main tasks for the organiser
- Manages email list
- Sends calendar invites as place holders in advance usually 4-5 months at a time
- Coordinates presenters / topics
- Updates web site programme page
- Sends an announcement email with topic / presenter information usually the first week of the month
- Sends a reminder email about the meeting early in the week of the meeting
- Purchases and prepares snacks (This is a joint effort with Robyn)
- Moderates the meeting
The meeting has two components: a general catch up and the presentation / discussion. The general catch up is a time for people to arrive, talk with one another, get to know one another and see what has happened since the last time we got together. The presentation / discussion is usually led by a presenter with some slides. Sometimes we have 2 presentations.
General Catch Up
- Allow people to arrive in a relaxed way, have a snack and chat with each other.
- If there is someone new, then we go around in a circle and self introduce (e.g. your name and what you do).
- Clearly explain the expectations / social norms of the group as described above.
- See if there is any news to share. For example, conference news, papers (particularly those authored by someone in the group), personal or professional milestones achieved. Take the time to celebrate each other’s successes.
- Allow a little time to transition to the presentation so people can get more snacks, have a comfort break, etc.
Presentation / Discussion
- Get things set up: projector, screen, computer, clicker, etc. This can be done earlier.
- Brief introduction of speaker & topic title
- The aim is clear communication to foster understanding and participation.
- Reminder that questions / discussion are expected during the presentation.
- Everyone has something to learn & everyone has something to contribute and can if they would like to.
- Actively De-acronym (e.g. Sorry, but what does XEDF stand for?).
- Moderator should pay attention and make sure those who may be a bit tentative have an opportunity to be part of the discussion if they wish.
- Flexibility is important, especially if there are two presentations. If there is a good discussion happening, then it is nice to let it continue, if possible. In this way, those who want to participate can and the conversation can come to a more natural stopping point. When this happens we ask the 2nd speaker if they mind holding off until the next meeting.
- Good time to ask for future presenters!
- Let people carry on their conversations.