Mentorship model for bioinformatics students bears fruit

Researchers from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), with its headquarters in Nairobi, have established a project-based mentorship and incubation programme to bridge the “bioinformatics training gap between undergraduate and graduate programmes or job opportunities”.

The researchers decry the fact that Kenya’s undergraduate training programmes do not adequately prepare students to specialise in bioinformatics, despite a rising demand for well-trained bioinformaticians to support genomics research in the country.

“Graduates are often unaware of the career opportunities in bioinformatics, and those who are, may lack mentors to help them choose a specialisation,” the researchers say in their article published in the journal Plos Computational Biology.

Several programmes established

According to the study, curriculum gaps can limit the educational potential of biology students – and their job options – and could hamper their research progression.

Africa’s high burden of infectious diseases, the researchers said, calls for capacity-building in bioinformatics to improve research and find solutions to deal with the burden of disease. Although advanced bioinformatics training is still low in Africa, the researchers said that countries such as Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda have made remarkable interventions to bridge the gaps through diverse bioinformatics capacity-building programmes.

They report that countries such as Kenya lack structured bioinformatics mentorship programmes save for a few organisations that offer short-term training and workshops as interventions such as ICIPE, the International Livestock Research Institute and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (both in Nairobi), and the UK-based Wellcome Trust. However, such initiatives are also limited to the availability of funds, the authors said, and when such funds become unavailable, it often interrupts students’ learning.

The researchers have established a Bioinformatics Incubation and Mentorship Programme to fill the gap in the transition from undergraduate programmes to support genomic studies or help students advance to postgraduate studies in Kenya and abroad.

Structured training key to success

The study’s corresponding author, Dr Caleb Kibet, a bioinformatics researcher at ICIPE, said that his experience of internships at ICIPE was an eye-opener that led to the establishment of the programme.

“I was a bioinformatics intern at ICIPE before my postgraduate studies, a testament to the role of mentorship and which motivated me to establish the programme. I wanted to establish a structured programme to give back and build capacity to support our genomics work in the centre,” Kibet said.

Kibet told University World News that the mentorship and incubation model has three components: structured training, project-based learning, and soft skills. Every four months, six bioinformatics graduates are recruited into the programme for training as preparation for masters degree studies and work at research initiatives.

“We give passionate and curious interns foundational training in bioinformatics. These are skills that they would need to analyse and interpret the data,” Kibet said.

The graduates are attached to various research projects in the centre for mentorship by ICIPE scientists, who mentor them on how to frame research questions and interpret the results, as well as highlighting the importance and application of the research.

“We [also] prepare them to develop their career vision, communicate effectively, and make applications through leadership training, practical roadmaps, and continuous feedback on their reports and presentations,” Kibet said, adding that the mentees are regularly engaged in journal code reviews and research presentations to hone their skills.

In-depth learning expected

The project advocates for open science during the internship period to spur collaboration – a critical component for the development of the interns as scientists “because they lead to more citations, possible collaborators, career prospects, and funding opportunities”.

At the end of the programme, the mentees are expected to have gained skills and a wealth of knowledge in bioinformatics competencies including data management, bioinformatics tools, resources and their use, the scientific discovery process, foundations of computer science systems, scripting and programming, and version control tools, which the researchers describe as critical and relevant to the bioinformatics discipline.

Since its establishment in October 2020, the programme has so far generated 27 highly competitive bioinformaticians who have secured job opportunities and postgraduate scholarships in Kenya and in foreign countries.

The researchers, who use pre- and post-internship surveys, weekly updates, and code reviews to assess and monitor the progress and impact of the programme, said that graduates who join the programme come with the expectations of in-depth learning of bioinformatics, improving their presentation skills, learning to code, creating meaningful networks, and are keen to interact with senior scientists for mentorship and gaining in-depth knowledge of genomics and genetics.

As the students are interviewed for inception into the programme, their research interests are more generalised, but become targeted and specific after completing the internship, the researchers said in their study report.

Challenges hinder progress

Such a mentorship and postgraduate training model, Kibet said, can be applied to all science disciplines to enable graduates to acquire the desired skills and knowledge for career progression. “Any science discipline can apply structured training, project-based learning, and soft skills training. It is essential that there is mentorship and supervision capacity in place to enable the interns to acquire the knowledge and skills within the defined timeframe.”

The project faced some hurdles, the researchers reported. The fast pace and turnaround nature of the initiative demands continuous design of projects that are well aligned with the interests of interns.

“Sometimes, however, some interns’ interests did not align with the work at the centre, or [it happens] that data-rich projects requiring their expertise were not readily available from within the host institute,” the researchers said, adding that they had to collaborate with other organisations to accommodate the interests of their interns.

Additionally, the short-term nature of the project is not sustainable and “though by design, may not allow the completion of some of the projects”, forcing retention of interns in various research projects after the four-month internship period.