4th Annual Big Data in Biology Symposium at the University of Texas in Austin

This post is by University of Texas at Austin grad student Rayna Harris

On Wednesday, May 11, 2016 The Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics hosted the 4th Annual Big Data in Biology Symposium at the University of Texas in Austin.



A major theme this year was centered around the intersection of synthetic biology and big data in biology. In the same way that sequencing genomes is becoming easier and cheaper, so too is our ability to modify and manipulate genomes. Talks by Pam Silver from Harvard University, Jon Laurent from Ed Marcotte’s lab, and Ross Thyer from Andy Ellington’s lab shed light on how synthetic biology can help us better understand evolutionary processes and build new tools for solving real-world problems.

A number of hands go up after Pam Silver’s excellent talk called “Building Biological Control: Living Therapeutics to Cell Factories”. Check out our Facebook page for more photos.

The other major theme (which is highlighted on our T-shirt and fliers) was the juxtaposition of beauty in nature and in computation. I think it’s awesome that we can use similar computational tools to study diverse biological processes. This was showcased by Lucia Carbone from Oregon Health Science University (OHSU) and Rachel Wright from Misha Matz’s lab, who use genomics and bioinformatics to study phenotypic diversity in primates and coral reefs, respectively. Ila Fiete and James Howison also presented great research on how they use computation to study behavior across scales, from Fiete’s dissection of neural circuits involved in memory to Howison’s analysis of how communities of people develop and maintain open source software.


A) Survey responses suggest that we offered the right amount of talks and the diversity of speakers was appropriate. B) Overall, the variety of social activities promoted networking, although there is room for improvement.


We try to make each event better and more impactful than the last, and based on the feedback we have received we seem to be successful. Here’s my reflection on what went well, what could have gone better, and how I think the event could be improved next year.

The diversity of speakers. This year, 4 out of 7 speakers were female (greater than 50%)! We invited three trainees from UT and two PIs to share their research with the community. Even though historically the event is meant to showcase research done here at UT, we had enough funding to invite two outside speakers (Pam Silver from Harvard Medical School and Lucia Carbone from OHSU). As you can see from the survey, pretty much everyone thought that the diversity of speakers was just right!

The poster session. This year, 28 scientists presented posters. The double-sided poster stands arranged nicely in a big space so there was plenty of room to move around. Even before the session began, people were constantly hanging out by posters and sharing ideas. We gave out awards for Best Big Data in Biology poster to one undergraduate (Abdurrahman Kharbat, David Stein Lab) and one graduate student (Laura Ferguson, Adron Harris Lab).

The Student-Industry Dinner. For the second year in a row, we solicited and received corporate sponsorship to host an industry mixer. This invitation-only event at the Clay Pit Indian restaurant was designed promote meaningful exchange between industry and academia. My favorite thing about this event is seeing people, who would never have otherwise met, engaged in animated conversations over delicious food.


The food. I used to strive for perfect marks on food from even the pickiest of eaters, but I’ve realized that catering is one of those things that will never go as well as I plan.

The length of lunch. In the past, lunch was 1.5 hours long because we conducted panel discussion on topics related to big data. This year, we kept the 1.5-hour lunch but dropped the panel discussion. As a result, some momentum was lost and attendance dropped a little bit for the afternoon session.

The length of the poster session. I thought 1.5 hours would be long enough for the poster session, but I was wrong. One judge didn’t have enough time to complete all the evaluations, and I one presenter was mid-sentence when the Facilities clean-up crew arrived at her poster to break down the poster stand. Maybe next year we can increase the session to two or more hours.

The industry exhibits. We invited representatives from six local companies at tables to host tables or “exhibits” during the poster session. I had never arranged anything like this before, so I didn’t really know what to ask of the representatives. I think it could have been a little more exciting or vibrant, because they didn’t attract much of a crowd. I would argue, however, that it was useful at promoting networking, if not during the poster session then later in the evening during the dinner.


Overall, I was really happy with the symposium and mixer, and so were the attendees! I think we have a good system for promoting the spread of knowledge in our community. Next year, we will bring back a more interactive session, like the breakout sessions from previous years, to provide a space for group discussions on specific challenges and opportunities for research. We also hope to extend our reach to industry beyond local companies to bring in representatives from national companies with mutual interest in Big Data in Biology. We look forward to seeing you there!


This event would not be possible without the help of many people!

Director: Hans Hofmann
Coordinator: Rayna Harris
Graphic Design: Nicole Elmer
Administration: Laurie Alvarez
Dinner Coordinators: Sean Leonard, Rebecca Tarvin, Rayna Harris
Corporate Relations: Kristine Haskett, Sumaya Saati
Symposium helpers: Laurie Alvarez, Nicole Elmer, Dennis Wylie, Benni Goetz, Dhivya Arrassappan

Event Sponsors
Mirna Therapeautics
The University of Texas at Austin Graduate School
The Graduate Student Assembly


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