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Internet-based BioInformatics Course Provides an International Classroom

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JOHOR BARU, Malaysia--Could virtual courses offered over the Internet help boost bioinformatics education around the world? Chin Hoon Lau thinks so.

The Malaysian researcher--founder of Lagenda Knowledge Systems, an internet informatics company here--is also the passionate force behind Bioscience Resources on the Internet (BRI), an innovative course that uses the net to bring students and faculty from around the world together for classes http://emile-21.com/BRI/welcome.html.

"More and more scientific information and activity--most notably bioinformatics--is becoming internet-based," Lau recently told BioInform.

"BRI seeks to prepare novice and experienced scientists alike to tap online resources and adapt to the networked scientific culture."

Lau first saw his dream tested in late 1995, when he participated in a month-long Internet course for the Singapore Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. That was followed in June 1997 by the first international edition of BRI, which was coorganized by Lau and Christian Frosch of the University of Mainz, Germany, and included 15 students from six nations. The second and most recent BRI course ended last month and involved 13 students and six primary faculty from about a dozen nations, from Israel and India to Brazil and Australia.

To bring the far-flung class together, BRI relies on a chat room for biologists, called BioMOO, which is promoted by a virtual group called Internet Biologists http://emile-21.com/NetBio/welcome.html. "In bioinformatics, experts are scattered all over the globe. BioMOO is a place where this brainpower can be concentrated easily," explained BRI faculty member and Internet Biologist activist Michael Rebhan of the Bioinform atics Unit at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. The simplicity and informality of BioMOO's text interface, Rebhan and others said, encourages meaningful interactions.

"BioMOO offers several advantages over a conventional meeting," BRI course materials explain. "There is a special MOO psychology. One wouldn't walk over to a renowned speaker at a meeting but here one can. One wouldn't interrupt the people around the speaker but in a MOO one can whisper or talk privately, even while general discussion is taking place."

In addition to their BioMOO chats, BRI students--normally postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers--are required to spend at least 10 hours per week learning to use internet resources, set up online conferences, and develop their scientific networking skills. But Lau noted that, "due to its multidisciplinary and collaborative nature, BRI's organizers are also learners in a certain sense."

Lau said that most of the students and faculty involved in the most recent course had a strong interest in bioinformatics and, as a result, the course was biased towards bioinformatics and molecular genetics. "We tended to recommend resources related to bioinformatics and use bioinformatics as the subject when discussing Internet tools," Lau said.

For future courses, BRI's organizers have been discussing a specialized edition for biocomputing majors, and a short course on sequence analysis. But, Lau said, "we are aware that a concentration on biocomputing may deter researchers from other disciplines from participating. So it has been proposed that we run BRI with [an emphasis] in other fields or specific topics, such as glycoscience or cell biology."

Whatever its future direction, Lau said BRI is helping him achieve his personal goal of using the Internet to help scientists avoid "reinventing the wheel" by learning what their colleagues around the world are up to. "I believe in the 'butterfly effect,'" he said. "A communication and information channel opened anywhere in the world will improve science and the well-being of research students and experienced scientists alike. I feel BRI and Internet Biologists have a modest but significant role in opening these channels."

-- David Malakoff

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