What I learned working at WormBase / OICR

Three weeks ago, I left the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) to join the Mozilla Science Lab. Yesterday would have been my five year work anniversary at OICR. Since I don’t get a plaque now, this seemed like a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned as I begin a new chapter at the Mozilla Science Lab.

Majority of my time at OICR, I served as lead developer on the WormBase project. I learned a lot about software, leading development teams and dealing with biological data; But my biggest takeaways came from watching the interaction between the scientific research community and the web.

Here are three lessons I learned in my five years at WormBase / OICR:

1. A simple web app can have a huge impact on a research community

WormBase is a highly curated biological database for nematode (aka roundworm) research. I worked to make it as easy as possible for researchers to find and consume this information.

It took me a few years to realize how unique WormBase is - an entire research community, spanning several topics, depends on this tool. The information there is vital to getting new students up to speed and it also facilitates insights and new discoveries. Thanks to regular worm meetings, you don’t have the regular barriers between fields within the worm community.

WormBase and the worm research community have helped each other grow over the years. Having all this information available has been hugely beneficial to anyone interested in nematodes. I want to see this happening in more areas of science.

2. Open source and open access makes science better

We were able to build WormBase with a small development team by using many open source tools. From the web framework (Catalyst) to bioinformatics tools (GBrowse, Intermine, more), most of WormBase was written by other people. I am grateful that so many bioinformatics research groups have embraced open source and given us tools that make the web useful for science.

OICR has some great champions for open source and open access in the research community. They understand that the best ideas don’t always come to the people who have access to resources today. Working beside these giants, it’s easy to imagine a world where any researcher - even the lowly undergrad - has access to tools and data to help make discoveries and further science.

3. Doing this right is hard. We need to communicate

Mistakes are made. Development resources and talent aren’t always available in the research world. Barriers to access range from technical to legal to personal. I don’t always understand what a worm researcher (or any researcher!) is looking for.

I want to see this all work - I want more discoveries, more tools and more science. But I’ve learned that this takes a lot of communication to do properly. WormBase is a huge team with even more stakeholders. It works because they know and are involved in their community; They understand what they can do to help.

By contrast, I’m joining a team that serves a much larger research community (i.e. the whole research community) that I personally don’t fully understand. I am so thankful that Mozilla Science Lab is full of volunteers spanning a wide set of research fields. Together, we can understand this space and help research thrive on the open web.

Join us: community call, mailing list, @MozillaScience. And of course, you can always reach me on twitter @abbycabs.


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