The UNSW Bioinformatics Hackathon saw students from across the university collaborate to analyse a series of health-related challenges. Funded by the Faculty of Engineering’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the hackathon attracted undergraduate and postgraduate students from different disciplines, facilitating collaboration and providing a meaningful platform for mixed perspectives.

The hackathon was facilitated by the UNSW Bioinformatics Society (BINFSOC), Australian Computational Biology and Bioinformatics Student Society (COMBINE) and Sydney Precision Data Science Centre (SPDSC), bringing together 27 students with an interest in the world of bioinformatics—the science of analysing and understanding biological data. In groups that sought to achieve balance across gender, age and expertise; participants worked on bioinformatics analysis tasks for eight hours, culminating in the presentation of accessible visualisations that reflected their findings.

Applying RNA-sequencing, proteomics and spatial data analysis towards real and published datasets, students aimed to either understand the causes and drivers of kidney graft rejection, investigate the immune response of individuals with symptoms of long-COVID, or explore the combination of cells in breast cancer tissue to help direct future research.

Commenting on the topics selected, BINFSOC President Jasmin Yip said, “These topics were chosen for their relevance to both mainstream and blossoming key areas of bioinformatics research, giving the participants an indicative day’s taste of a research project in computational biology.”

She added, “The underlying concepts behind these areas were simple enough for students without prior experience to grasp and enabled those with the experience to apply and expand their existing knowledge. Additionally, having these categories allowed students to select a challenge most interesting to them.”

Mentors from COMBINE assisted students with conceptual understanding and idea generation throughout the event, and the groups were ultimately assessed not only on their analysis, but on the accessibility of their solution and presentation—from generating graphical visualisations over tabular data, font sizes to use of contrast and the inclusion of closed captions.

Jasmin said that with the support of the EDI sponsorship, the weighting of accessibility and clarity was at the forefront of judging.

“Accessibility is an integral part of bioinformatics due the multidisciplinary nature of the field and the constant need to exchange ideas between biologists, statisticians, and computer scientists.”

“The winning team demonstrated outstanding usage of good design and presentation practices with exceptional clarity and readability going the extra mile for visually appealing plots. They were complemented for their comprehensive and approachable walkthrough of their workflow.”