COG-Train is an international educational initiative providing open-access learning in SARS-CoV-2 genomics. We spoke to Tracey Calvert-Joshua, an educator who took part in the third COG-Train online course.
Tracey Calvert-Joshua is an early-stage scientist – a bioinformatician and PhD student – at the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) where her work focuses primarily on Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the cause of tuberculosis. She also has experience in the fields of cancer genomics, operon prediction (an operon is a group of closely linked genes that are controlled in a co-ordinated way) and SARS-CoV-2 genome data analysis. Tracey is a firm proponent of the potential of online learning and digital tools for education, so her participation in the third COG-Train online course, “Making sense of genomic data: COVID-19 web-based bioinformatics”, was only fitting.
Tracey’s first experiences as an educator started during her Master’s degree, where she secured a part-time role as physics lecturer near her university campus. After three years of this more traditional style of teaching, Tracey – who had a keen interest in coding, and in the Python programming language in particular – began to organise coding training sessions for women. “I realised that there was an opportunity to support women in coding, in that many women learn to code but then never use that skill again, and so this was something that I wanted to help change.”
After some time, Tracey began to upload her Python training content to YouTube and found a like-minded community of people who were passionate about learning and teaching. “People started recommending people from other universities and other parts of Africa that I could draw inspiration from.” Tracey tells us that much of her material at this time was adapted from elsewhere, so the next step was to help fully design an original course from start to finish. “Then, lo and behold, an opportunity came along to get involved with COG-Train.”
COG-Train was different to anything she’d done previously and had several challenges. Studying full time for a PhD while also working on the training material meant squeezing in time during her evenings to write articles for the course. However, Tracey tells us that relative to juggling her busy schedule, “condensing the information was much harder.” “You have to pull everything apart and really think about whether students are going to understand everything if you take certain information out.” Another obstacle that Tracey had to overcome was self-doubt. At times she found herself thinking that she didn’t know anything, though when it came to teaching, she realised just how much she knew. “You tend to always compare yourself with the people ahead of you, rather than appreciating the great progress you’ve made.”
On her experience as an educator on the course overall, and having to face barriers along the way, Tracey says, “it’s been a pleasure, actually.” She emphasises the role played by the COG-Train team – giving each educator a week to prepare their sections – as being critical to her positive experience. Tracey also reflects on how the students enrolled onto the course contributed to a constructive atmosphere. “Most people came with an intention to learn and when you come with that drive it’s very easy for an educator to assist; that’s why they signed up in the first place.”
Tracey says that she wants to apply her own learnings from the course into her work moving forward. Namely, she, “realised how much you can achieve as part of a network – especially when you pull on different people’s strengths.” The environment that was created by all the collaborators on the course was “incredibly fruitful”, and Tracey links this directly to what she considers to be the highlight of the course for her: “reading the comments and seeing that the course has been useful for the participants.”
Further highlighting the impact that COG-Train could have on future learners, Tracey says, “it was beautiful to see the understanding that students had by just having the material to rewatch in their own time”. The digital model of training delivery offered by COG-Train means that not only was there greater flexibility in learning content but also for mentoring within the cohort. Tracey is quick to point out the enthusiasm for learning displayed by the students, “it was amazing seeing them being able to find others that were able to explain or answer a question from a different point of view.” As with previous courses run by COG-Train, this course has already been a resounding success – with over 1,300 students enrolled from all corners of the globe so far.
Tracey offers some final words of encouragement for people who are thinking of participating in COG-Train – in any capacity. “When I look at COG-Train, in terms of the people that I’ve worked with, you’re aware that you’re working with people who are very smart – but there’s no arrogance. To that end, the potential for learning, no matter your background, is very high.”
Join the course “Making sense of genomic data: COVID-19 web-based bioinformatics” here.