Canada’s only genomics-themed hackathon utilises open science

Over the course of October 20 to 22, research teams from UBC and abroad gathered to participate in Hackseq, an annual hackathon focused on solving problems in genomics.

Hackathons are energy drink-fuelled marathons where people bring projects to life by creating software and hardware. Hackseq embodies this principle, but specifically attracts participants whose ventures are related to genomics, a field of molecular biology that studies organisms’ genetic material.

This is the second year Hackseq has taken place, and the conception was inspired by a genetics conference last August.

“The original idea was just to bring the community together in Vancouver, and to improve diversity in bioinformatics,” explained Jake Lever, one of the conference’s organizers and a PhD student at UBC.

According to Arjun Baghela — another organizer and UBC Master’s student — Hackseq is the only Canadian genomics-themed hackathon, but they’re already garnering attention and enthusiasm.

This year, there were eight teams with proposals ranging from developing programs to analyze genomic data, to researching genes of cancer cells. All projects can be found on GitHub, an online platform that facilitates the sharing of codes.

Making the progress accessible to the public is part of the philosophy of Hackseq. In other words, they support the concept of “open science,” which is a movement that encourages greater accessibility to data and research. For example, open science advocates for making all data that has been collected from an experiment to be made available online for free so anyone — not just experts — can look at and analyze.

In addition, Hackseq also aims to support students who are curious about research in bioinformatics, the field of developing tools for analyzing biological data, regardless of their level of experience. Each research team is led by a seasoned professional in the field, but the team can be composed of people from all backgrounds and levels of education.

When asked about what they hoped participants would take away from the event, the organizing team emphasized learning new skills and meeting short-term research goals.

“There was one project [last year] that actually ended up with a draft of their paper at the end ... so that was a pretty impressive precedent that they set,” Jasleen Grewal, another organizer and UBC PhD student, elaborated.

When asked what else would motivate scientists to spend their weekend coding, the team enthusiastically agreed, “It’s also fun!”