The 3rd Annual Big Data in Biology Symposium

The 3rd Annual Big Data in Biology Symposium on May 15, 2015 was hosted by the Center for Computational Biology at UT Austin and organized by some BEACON members. This annual symposium provided an ideal opportunity to interact with attendees from UT Austin and nearby institutions with an interest in computational biology, bioinformatics, and systems biology. Here, I summarize scientific content of the talks, breakout sessions, poster session, and industry dinner.

The Talks

The symposium talks covered research into epigenetics, genomics, transcriptomics, and immune repertoires in a wide range of organisms. We heard from graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members, providing a diversity of experience and perspective of the impact of big data on biology.

This year’s keynote lecture was delivered by Dr. Shelley Berger from The University of Pennsylvania. She discussed her research into the epigenetic mechanisms regulating of caste-specific phenotypes in eusocial ants. Amelia Hall, a graduate student in the Iyer lab, also focused on epigenetics, describing her analyses of histone pattering in glioblastoma tumors and the effects on gene expression.

BEACONite Dr. Jeffrey Barrick talked about technological advances for mapping beneficial mutations in the E. coli Long-term Experimental Evolution Experiment and the exciting implications for evolution and adaptation. Dr. Kasie Raymann, a postdoc in the Moran lab, talked about her thesis research using large scale genomic data to understand the evolutionary origins of eukaryotes.

Justine Murray, graduate student in the Whiteley lab, discussed her use of RNA-seq and Transposon (Tn) Seq to understand the dynamics of poly-bacterial infections.

Dr. Mikhail Matz talked about recent computational tools his lab has developed for analyzing RNA-seq data. BEACONite Dr. Becca Young (Hofmann lab) also described new computational tools that can be used for identifying homologous genes groups, an important step for comparative transcriptomics. Jeff Hussmann, a graduate student in the Press and Sawyer labs, discussed how systematic biases in ribosome profiling experiments can lead to an incorrect understanding of translation speed.

Dr. Jenny Jiang talked about using high-throughput sequencing and single cell analysis to characterize immune repertoires, and Dr. Oana Lungu, a postdoc in the Georgiou and Ellington labs, shared her in silico approach for characterizing changes in protein structure of immune after antigen experience.

The Lunch Breakout Sessions

The lunch breakout sessions provided attendees the opportunity to have small-group discussions with various big data professionals over a catered lunch. These sessions were aimed at helping attendees network with other like-minded researchers and discover resources for different aspects of and opportunities in data science. The three breakout session topics included 1) Big Data in Medicine & Health, which highlighted the tremendous opportunities and technical challenges for evidence-based medicine arising from electronic health records; 2) Careers in Biotech/Industry, which provided insights into non-academic careers; and 3) Open Science, which discussed the importance of data sharing, public access to research, and the increasing role of social media in scientific communication.

The Poster Session

The Poster Session. Left: The poster session took place in a lovely ballroom. Right: The symposium ended with a postdoc and graduate student poster award presentation. L-R: Dr. Scott Hunicke-Smith, BEACONite Dr. Daniel Deatherage (postdoc winner), BEACONite Dr. Hans Hofmann, Claire McWhite (grad student winner), and BEACONite Rayna Harris.

A poster session follows the symposium and allows trainees to explain their work and facilitate fruitful exchanges. There were twenty posters on various topics, including genomics, transcriptomics, epigenetics, and proteomics. BEACONite Dr. Daniel Deatherage (Barrick lab) and Claire McWhite (Marcotte lab), respectively, won the best postdoc and student poster awards.

The Industry Partners Dinner

This year, we hosted an Industry Partners Dinner for representatives of the local biotech and high-tech industry corporations to meet a diverse set of graduate students in the College of Natural Sciences who are interested in careers in industry. Graduate students from multiple graduate program and a handful of faculty members networked with associates from Asuragen, Bioo Scientific, Dell (who generously sponsored this event), IBM, Lab7, Macromoltek, and Sonic Healthcare USA.

We invited 12 industry partners, 12 faculty/staff members, and 24 students. We have found that 8 person tables work well for promoting discussion, so seats were assigned such that every industry partner and faculty member was flanked by two students. Everyone agreed that this seating arrangement works very well for facilitating conversation between people at different career stages and with diverse backgrounds, many of whom had never met.

The Industry Partners Dinner. This cocktail hour and dinner provide more than 20 graduate students the opportunity to chat with people from the thriving biotech and bioinformatic industry in Austin Texas. Seating was arranged so that Industry partners were flanked by students, providing ample opportunity to learn about graduate research at UT Austin.

Based on the many positive and encouraging comments we received most of the attendees, our first formal event with our Industry Partners was a huge success, as it opened many doors for new graduate students interested in different career options and for industry-academia partnerships.


The Organizers

The symposium and the dinner would not have happened without the efforts of Hans Hofmann(Director of the CCBB) and Scott Hunicke-Smith (Director of the GSAF). BEACONite Laurie Alvarez (CCBB) is a crucial team member who handles all the finances and so much more. Nicole Elmer (CCBB) is an excellent graphic designer and helped design and distribute all communication materials. Thanks to Becca Tarvin and Sean Leonard for helping organize the Industry Partners Dinner.

The Sponsors

We are grateful to BEACON for providing travel support to BEACON Managing Director Dr. Danielle Whitaker and to The Graduate School Academic Enrichment Fund for providing travel support for Dr. Shelley Berger. Graduate Student Assembly Appropriations were used for printed materials and speaker gifts. We want to extend a special thanks to Dell for generously sponsoring the Big Data in Biology Industry Partners Dinner.

Original Posting

This blog was originally posted on the BEACON Blog website on June 9, 2015.

For more information about the Big Data in Biology Symposium, visit the website at