What is precision bioinformatics?

You may have heard of the term precision medicine or precision agriculture but do you know what precision bioinformatics is?

Well sorry to say this blog post is not about defining what it is, but my own experience as certain senior academics tried to push a new trend of precision bioinformatics at a cost. At what cost? Well certainly making one early career researcher feel devalued but it remains to be seen what the real cost is and whether their push was really worth it in the end.


I won’t attempt to reveal which institute or which group I am talking about, athough I know this information is easily revealed by some simple googling. I’m certainly not looking for people to harass the individuals in this group, so please don’t do that. I feel that there is a certain toxic culture and unfortunately, a somewhat public callout is necessary for higher-ups to take it seriously. I did communicate privately before any callout but never felt it got resolved or there is a serious attempt from senior leadership team to do better.

Precision Bioinformatics Research Group

At the end of November 2018, I received some photos (below - some regions deleted) from friends at two different conferences.

The reason they sent to me was quite innocent: my photo and name appeared on the slide.

I think the shock to them, and to me, was that I didn’t even know I belonged to a Precision Bioinformatics Research Group. Yeah sure I know the people in the group, there are faculty members in my school, but no one from the group consulted or communicated to me about this. It also turned out I wasn’t the only one - one other colleague in that slide didn’t know either and two other colleagues that are listed on the website as affiliated to the group didn’t even know the existence of the website nor the group with that name.

The other part that really bugged me was the claim there is 20 PhD candidates in the group. It was closer to 10 and the website it was pointing to didn’t even list 20 names.

I wrote an email to the group leader (the first one is their^ slide at a conference and the second one being their student’s slide), cc’ing the other senior academic in the group writing my concern for the lack of consultation and consultation about this matter. Their word-to-word reply was:

Dear Emi,
I am glad that you are voicing your concern to me in an email and these issues are best discuss face to face.
Communication goes both ways, how about having a chat next week when I am back.
Best wishes …

Communication goes both ways? That’s a funny way to put it. 😕

Needless to say I asked to have my name removed. So did two other colleagues of mine who didn’t know they were listed as affiliates.

The lack of communication & consultation and more broadly lack of transparency & inclusivity is not good enough and leaks across other aspects of the school. I know these are not the worst incidences, and I symphathise with those that have it worse.

^ Their is used in place of his/her as not to identify the gender.


Bioinformatics and Biometrics group

  • Soon after I joined the university as lecturer, I was invited to be part of a group led by some senior academics.
  • Initially the group was to be called Bioinformatics Research Group but I asked to include Biometrics as I felt my research is no longer as focussed on bioinformatics and I was not the only one working in the biometrics area in the group (you can see here to see the difference between bioinformatics and biometrics).
  • Subsequently the website was set up for Bioinformatics and Biometrics Group with my photo and name as part of the team. I was happy that Biometrics was included.

Group communication

Group Meetings

  • The group met almost weekly.
  • I went regularly to the group meeting in my first year.
  • The group meetings involved the students of the professors presenting their bioinformatics work which was not related to my research at the time.
  • I was still keen on finding a common ground and made some attempts for this.
    • I invited someone from biometrics to present. Prof A did not come to that meeting.
    • Although presentations are done largely by students, I presented my work.
    • I wrote a number of honour projects to co-supervise with a number of people in the group. In the end I had one student chose a project which was supervised by me and Prof B.
  • I did not regularly go to group meetings in my second year. A few reasons stand for this:
    • I didn’t feel I got much out of the group meetings nor was I able to contribute much.
    • I was getting too busy with my own work which largely differed from the rest of the group.


  • There was also a slack channel for the group.
  • The communications happened virtually all in private channels - which means you need to be invited explicitly to join.
  • Prof A created a channel for website to discuss matters relating to the group website; and also a channel for faculty members to discuss inclusion of any new people to the slack channel.

🕓 18 months later…

  • There is an annual group retreat that discuss matters relating to the group, which I couldn’t make it in the first year as I was attending the MAGIC workshop.
  • In the second year, I couldn’t attend as I was to deliver a workshop at The University of Tokyo that time.
  • The workshop I was to deliver was organised weeks before they decided on the retreat.
  • Three out of the eight faculty members could not come to retreat.
  • The discussion to change the name of the group happened at this retreat. There was absolutely no indication that the group name was up for discussion nor changed after the whole change happened. This is despite the existence of a slack channel solely for the existence for changes to the website.

The Talks

  • I did talk to Prof A and Prof B separately after the incidences.
  • Prof A deflected a lot. No apologies. I called attention to other matters during that talk including the fact that Prof A added a lot of people onto slack channel although Prof A was the one who said we should discuss on the faculty channel first. I felt the conversation lacked genuiness and sincerity.
  • Prof B listened sincerely and opened the group name for discussion on slack.
  • The talk was suspended because of Christmas shutdown. Prof B called for resuming discussion after the University reopens.
  • Soon after the university reopened, I went to a job interview and about a week after that I was offered the job and accepted it to start about one year later.
  • The group meeting was suspended weeks until the semester started (which was the case previous year too). Prof A called for a group meeting specifying a specific time. It was during my teaching time… Naturally I couldn’t attend. I would have raised an issue but as I was leaving, I decided not to bother.
  • In that group meeting that I couldn’t attend, they apparently unanimously decided to keep the name as Precision Bioinformatics Research Group. Nevermind that the person who raised the issue couldn’t even be there to present their case.

Why Precision Bioinformatics?

  • In the end, it was a marketing ploy.
  • Some felt that because there is no such thing as precision bioinformatics, the group was trend setter and they will be different.
  • I frankly expressed that I think the group name should be informative and if they want to make a difference, they should make a difference in their research not a shallow attempt at the group name and that the name felt gimmicky.
  • Prof A defended the new group name, saying how Precision Bioinformatics represent different dimensions (I forgot what those dimensions represent). I certainly felt that Prof A was in a different dimension to me.

The issues

  • There was lack of inclusivity.
    • There was no attempt from the group to check I (or my colleague) could come to the retreat.
    • There are multiple private channels for the group slack. Who gets included in what was really under the whim of Prof A.
  • No promotion of diversity. If it wasn’t aligned with Prof A’s research, I felt it was treated secondary. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
  • Lack of diversity. The 5 out of 8 faculty members who made it to the retreat were Prof A, two former PhD students of Prof A, Prof B and Prof B’s former PhD student. The lack of variety of views in making the decision making team was appalling.
  • Devaluing early career researchers. What stumps is that the word Biometrics that got removed was the very word that I asked to be included in the initial formation of the website. Obviously if it was going to be removed from the group name, I would care and I’d think you would consult me beforehand. The response “Communication goes both ways” from Prof A still baffles me. Sorry that I didn’t think to ask you whether you were going to change the group name? I should have known better. 😕
  • Even without consultation, I think that the group didn’t communicate the decision just shows the underlying issue - those that did not come are secondary to the group and do not need to be told of the decision.

Well how badly it was managed was somewhat comical if you can remove yourself from the situation. Certainly it inspired me to draw this comic that I tweeted much to the amusement of a number of my friends and colleagues. I’m no Taylor Swift, but I’ll write a comic about you if you… cross my path… speaking of which her latest song fits this situation so well. 🎧

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