This summer I collaborated with Jadesada Schneider, a first year undergraduate student who was keen to learn about wasp evolution and bioinformatics. He reached out to the Sumner lab with an email to present himself and his interests. We then met him for a friendly chat (prior to the pandemic situation), and agreed to research together the evolution of sociality in wasps, with the aim of publishing together a scientific paper.

puzzle pieces

Collaboration: process of two or more people working together to complete a task (Wikipedia)

Planning a summer internship during COVID19

We first created a mentoring contract, in which both Jadesada and I wrote our expectations and our goals inspired by Pleuni Pennings’s blog post. Because the internship was set during lockdown, we communicated via video calls and shared cloud-based documents. We both wanted to reproduce as much as possible the environment of an academic research project, so that Jadesada got to know as close as possible the academic world. So we thought about: reading articles and talking about the results, attending online seminars together (exchanging our thoughts after the talk), actively participating in the Sumner lab meetings, organising expert drop-out (video calls with discussing result slides), registering and attending a computer cluster workshop. The cherry on top would be Jadesada presenting his finding during a UCL GEE departmental talk.

Great collaborative work

We decided to catch up twice a week with a video call where we’d shared our findings, our code debugging. This worked really well to have an efficient team work without loading our long days with many other video calls. We also set up a message chat (UCL uses Microsoft Teams), so we could easily communicate the rest of the week.

I could help fixing things as they came up (e.g. issues while installing tools on the cluster, or search on Github issues for solution). I constantly encouraged the “thinking together”, mentioning as well the rubber duck effect and introducing typical research ideas, such as correlation is not causation. We both learnt from each other, for instance I showed Jadesada how to get RStudio to wrap the code at 80 characters, Jadesada conducted a side experiment with really cool findings that I did not foresee.

We focused our two-month collaboration on Evolution and Bioinformatics, with the example of the evolution of sociality in wasps. Jadesada started his internship with a vague idea of what a command line was. By the end of the internship, he had used the university cluster with success, including organising a bioinformatics project, installing tools (by no mean a small feat!!!), transforming genomics datasets into statistical findings with RMarkdown, writing well-documented scripts that are reproducible with version-control Github. He had also tackled many ideas coming from social evolution theory, and discussed many articles with growing academic expertise.

We also talked about communicating science. First, finding good sources of articles help thinking about the project, such as using Google Scholar to find a researcher’s list of publication, or increasing the depth of a literature review with ConnectedPapers, or even sending an email to the author to request a PDF of the article. Second, we talked about the bizarre system of publishing peer-reviewed articles and alternative platforms (biorxiv and PeerCommunity). Finally, I explained my previous experiences attending in-person conferences, to which Jadesada rightly commented that conferences are like music festivals, with long days of fun and A-list keynote speakers.

Take home message

Our research project is still ongoing, so watch this space for news of a co-authored manuscript and a Github public repository. Jadesada is presenting the project to the UCL GEE seminar community, and soon will start his second year of undergraduate degree.

I really enjoyed our collaboration! I was able to share many tips that I learnt, with a small contribution in making the academic world more accessible by describing my day-to-day schedule and talking about science and its issues. Mentoring also kept me engaged throughout the summer of COVID19. I hope by sharing these notes to encourage more collaboration across academia.