HGSC expands worldwide in virtual format

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many events at Baylor have transitioned to a virtual format, and this turns out to have some unexpected benefits.

Instead of meeting in person, participants have come to rely on platforms like Zoom to connect. That includes the Human Genome Sequencing Center’s annual Hackathon, hosted on Oct. 11-14. While virtual events present a different set of challenges than in-person events, Hackathon organizers say the virtual format came with an unexpected benefit—a diverse group of participants from around the world.

The HGSC Hackathon started at Baylor last year as an in-person event with around 40 attendees. Over the course of the four-day event, participants were split into groups and tasked with developing prototypes and software to analyze genomic datasets and solve challenging problems. This year’s second-annual event focused on problems involving structural variants, which are large alterations in the genome that are important across many diseases and organisms, and pangenomics, the study of combinations of multiple human genomes. Participants also tackled problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hackathon organizer Dr. Fritz Sedlazeck, assistant professor at the Human Genome Sequencing Center, used this year’s virtual format to try to recruit more experts in genomics outside Baylor. He advertised on Twitter and LinkedIn, and people from all over the world responded. After reviewing all the applications, Sedlazeck ended up with 80 participants. 

HGSC Hackathon participant map

HGSC Hackathon participant map.

“We had experts in this field coming together from all over the world,” Sedlazeck said. “That wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t a virtual event. Someone from Australia wouldn’t be able to fly into Houston for a four-day Hackathon.”

With participants tuning in online from across the globe, organizers faced a new challenge—time zones. The time difference often meant some participants had to work odd hours to stay in touch with their teammates in another country. Sedlazeck said he initially planned to put people in groups based on their location so that people in similar time zones could work together on the same schedule, but he found that diversifying the groups was more beneficial.

“I didn’t want the people who usually work together to be working together again,” Sedlazeck said. “I wanted to mix it up. This is also a networking event. People will learn more if they’re in groups of people that they don’t know.”

Communication between group members also had to change this year. Sedlazeck organized a Slack channel for all participants, and daily meetings and brainstorms were done over Zoom.

HGSC Hackathon Zoom

HGSC Hackathon by Zoom.

“Each group had a Zoom channel so they could hop on and discuss their work,” Sedlazeck said. “Sometimes it’s easier to have a 5 to 10 minute Zoom meeting than to write for 20 minutes on Slack.”

The virtual communication is continuing, even after the Hackathon is over. Participants are staying in touch with their teams through their Slack channel. Sedlazeck said he plans to include a virtual component in future Hackathons, even after the pandemic ends, so the HGSC can continue to include participants from around the world.

Sedlazeck recommends that other virtual event organizers incorporate fun moments into the schedule. In addition to prizes for the project winners, Hackathon organizers also handed out prizes in fun categories. Thanks to sponsorships from two companies, PacBio and Oxford Nanopore Technologies, winners took home Amazon gift cards.

To keep the mood light, participants shared memes and songs from the “The LEGO Movie” soundtrack.

“We’re all sitting in front of zoom meetings every day,” Sedlazeck said. “It’s refreshing to have not so serious moments.”

The HGSC Hackathon was sponsored by DNANexus, and Ben Busby with DNANexus co-organized the event with Sedlazeck. Learn more about the Hackathon projects here.

By Molly Chiu