JKUAT Partners with Belgium Varsity to Train in Bioinformatics

Prof. Dirk Valkenberg from Hasselt University makes a presentation

Inadequate expertise in handling big data-driven projects using specialized artificial intelligence tools such as bioinformatics is hindering African countries from accurately predicting outcomes in critical fields such as agriculture and medicine.

Bioinformatics is a relatively new and evolving discipline that combines skills and technologies from computer science and biology to enable data scientists better understand and interpret biological data. One field where bioinformatics is especially useful is genomics, which can generate vast quantities of information.

In light of this, the Institute of Biotechnology and Research (IBR), JKUAT in collaboration with Hasselt University, Belgium held a one-day workshop on February 22, 2023, to guide postgraduate students undertaking Biotechnology, Botany, and Medical Microbiology on how to manage complex and large volumes of data in Genomics (which involves collecting and analyzing complex biological data such as genetic codes) through bioinformatics.

Prof. Dirk Valkenberg from Hasselt University provided an overview on the importance of Bioinformatics with a focus on machine learning which he explained has been instrumental in eliminating trial and error in the field of medicine, such as in cancer research, and therefore enabling accurate predictions, and effective medication.

Prof. Valkenberg further advised that even though the trained data scientists would now be proficient in working with large data sets, sequencing, and using algorithms, which are the fundamental components of Bioinformatics, it was important to engage the expertise of statisticians to avoid wastage of funds.

“Let statisticians verify your experimental design so as to obtain accurate and replicable findings. This is because using correct data sets and proper models helps avoid assumptions and therefore make informed decisions with minimal errors,” insisted Prof. Valkenberg.

Participants of the Bioinformatics Workshop

Dr. Simon Appeltans also from Hasselt University expounded on how Machine Learning through programming languages such as Python can be used to solve different agricultural problems in crop and livestock management. This includes yield prediction, disease and weed detection, crop quality, and species recognition as well as soil management.

The training in Bioinformatics, which is an interdisciplinary field that encompasses computer science, mathematics, physics, and biology sought to enable the students to identify genes and proteins, determine their functions, establish evolutionary relationships in order to better understand biological phenomena for accurate interventions.

Previously, prior to the emergence of machine learning, bioinformatics algorithms had to be programmed manually which made accurate predictions difficult, hence the need to develop and bolster Bioinformatics research capacity.

The workshop, which was the second, following one held in September 2021, was held at the newly established Centre of Bioinformatics and was supported by the VLIR-UoS BIRD project. The project had two objectives. The first was to use genomic technique to profile the genetic pedigree of Kenya poultry particularly chicken in order to improve production and adaptability, while the second was to create a Bioinformatics Centre for capacity building in big data.

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