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CompBioAsia: An international summit bringing computational biology students together

By Abby Aldrich

For a small field like computational biology, joining an international workshop is a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn from, collaborate with and talk to professionals and students from around the world. This is how Duncan Boren of the Vermaas Lab felt when he learned about the CompBioAsia program.

“My jaw dropped,” said Duncan, a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, after hearing about the program. “I never thought it would be possible to have someone else pay for me to see another country while [learning from] and meeting other students who are also interested in something I am.”

Duncan Boren
Duncan Boren
Photo by Kara Headley

The program is comprised of two groups, American and international students, who are flown out to a Southeast Asian city. This year was the second time the workshop was held; this time in Singapore. Duncan attended both workshops, the first of which was held in Bangkok.

An average day during the program had a precise schedule, consisting of three-hour blocks, cultural excursions and student-led workshops that were an hour in length. For the student led workshops, attendees were able to pick and choose which workshop they wanted to attend in accordance with their interests within computational biology.

“It’s good to be able to sit down and ask other students about their work and explain the work that I do. I think it’s something that’s essential in the sciences in general, and it’s been hard for me to get experience in that because I’m in a niche field currently,” Duncan said.

One workshop Duncan found insightful was a student led workshop that highlighted a Blender kit called Molecular Nodes. Blender is a modeling software that can be used to create professional 3D rendered images. With this toolkit, Duncan learned how to import data from a molecular dynamics engine into the software to create visualizations that would be impossible to create in his default rendering software.

One of the explicit goals of CompBioAsia is to unite computational biology students from across the globe. Because computational biology is such a niche field, Duncan found that being surrounded by peers and professors who study the same subject in different ways was an incredible experience.

A group of people pose near a sign that reads #NUS
Duncan Boren with his fellow CompBioAsia attendees.
Courtesy photo

“We’re doing molecular dynamics and we’re doing it in very different ways and for very different purposes. It’s very exciting to meet other students who do that. It was also very cool to have a large number of faculty from institutions across the world,” he said.

Professors from the University of Montana provided help for new tools that can be difficult to get documentation for because they haven’t been around for long.

Something that Duncan noted was that as a student from the U.S., he has the privilege of being able to access high-tech equipment that many other researchers and scientists across the world don’t have access to. He mentioned that this fact is important to remember to take into consideration when talking with other researchers and when reviewing job applicants.

“It’s important to understand when you are assessing an applicant from a different country, the scale of simulation is not necessarily the measure of the quality of work that person is doing,” Duncan said.

This is why an event like CompBioAsia is so important for a growing field like computational biology. It offers new perspectives and opportunities for those like Duncan who will continue to pioneer the field.

“I’m very thankful for everyone who helped this happen. Everyone at the University of Montana and at the National University of Singapore, as well as our hosts in Bangkok. It’s been a very helpful and exciting experience!”