Wednesday 7 August 2013

It's not about the money

In the mid-to-late 1990s I was teaching post-graduate courses on bioinformatics and molecular evolution. In Ireland then, as now, there was no formal structure for post-graduate education and many PhD students learned only by basking in mentor-glow for three or four years with occasional trips to the library.  My funders believed that these courses were useful but insisted that there should be no such thing as a free lunch and so I was obliged to charge everyone £10 (!) for a 5-day 25 contact-hour course.  Every time I ran the course - and several hundred students took it towards the end of the last century - I'd print out some dinky little receipt tickets and dole these out when I went round collecting fees during the first practical session.

So I was a little disconcerted when a couple of lads in one course didn't want a receipt.  I suggested that maybe their boss would need it to claim back the cost.  But they replied that their boss wasn't going to pay for this aspect of their education and it was as much as they could do to get her permission to leave the bench.  Having been an impoverished graduate student myself,  I was speechless at the meanness and narrow-mindedness of their PI, made a note of her name and have since been accumulating a dossier of her many other character faults, together with examples sharp practice in her science.

The course was called Easy as ABC because the manual (Aoife's Bioinformatics Course) had been designed by me but written and produced by Aoife McLysaght before she was famous, indeed before she got her first degree.  It started off with rather noddy techniques then quite rapidly expanded everyone's tool-kit so that by the end of the course they had the wherewithal to put their gene-of-interest into its evolutionary context. Comparing its structure and function with related genes helped set up a protocol that would inform their science and, at the least, save them wasting a lot of expensive reagents because they were better able to design effective experiments.  So it was a persistent niggle of mine when students wouldn't finish the course: missing out the last day when, after all the foundations had been laid, the interesting stuff started to happen.  Friday afternoon used to be when Dublin students would go home to the countryside to help with the family farm, but that doesn't really happen anymore and I sort of knew that I'd lost those students, physically, metaphorically and philosophically.

The ABC course did, however, develop some European street cred and I was invited to run it several times in Oslo, and Turku and Helsinki, and Istanbul . . . and South Africa.  I mentioned yesterday that I'd been invited to teach a bioinformatics course in South Africa in December 1999.  I was delighted and immensely flattered to find that my co-teacher was Cedric Notredame who had recently written The textbook Bioinformatics for Dummies. I saw fewer funnier things in the 1990s than Cedric (un véritable Français) imitating his boss Des Higgins (a genuine Northside Dubliner) imitating a Frenchman - "Regardez, mes gars, que je twirlez mes moustaches" etc.  Eeee, I larfed so hard I wet 'em. Cedric has gone on and up to other things like technology & democracy.

Our local organiser, Win Hide, had arranged two intense courses cramming what I'd do in a leisurely week into three long hard days: Mo-We in Pretoria and Th-Sa in CapeTown.  I think it may have been the first formal course in bioinformatics on the continent of Africa.  We did our theatre; we set the practical sessions running; we showed the youngsters why it wouldn't work like that and perhaps try this; we answered questions about their particular research projects and then we went to dinner and ate kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) and really fresh fish.  At the end of the last long day in U. Pretoria, Cedric and I were shuffling our papers and packing up to make the evening flight down to Cape Town when we realised that none of our students had left.  They wanted to thank us for coming to the other side of the world to share our experience and expertise with them: a spontaneous receiving line was formed and we shook hands with each and everyone as they left the room.  Dang me!  And exactly the same thing happened at the end of the Th-Sa course in the University of the Western Cape.  Double Dang!

It was clear that the mothers of South Africa were bringing up their children with impeccable manners.  But it was also clear that when you have very little, then education is really valued.  Shortly after that, I stopped teaching the ABC course in Ireland.  It was partly because the money ran out, partly because the interweb was developing some really good tools and so our course was becoming redundant, partly because I was offered two great jobs back in research.  But it was also because I got fed up with showing a glimpse of the Holy Grail to gossoons who thought that £10 bought them the right to mitch off the last day of the course.  And if you suggest that I should have charged a lot more money, because that would have put more value on what I was doing, then I'll get really cross.

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