Stats meets biology at workshop

28 September 2010 | Story by Newsroom

Workshop participantsWorkshop participants: (From left): Dr Res Altwegg (SANBI), Theoni Photopoulos, Dr Monique MacKenzie, Dr Carl Donovan and Dr David Borchers (all University of St Andrews).

An enthusiastic group of biologists exploited the availability of computer teaching laboratories on UCT's upper campus during the short vacation to take part in a statistical modelling workshop for biologists, presented by an equally enthusiastic team of experts from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Trepidation about Scottish accents came to naught when it transpired that the team consisted of two ex-New Zealanders (Monique MacKenzie and Carl Donovan), one ex-South African and UCT alumnus (David Borchers) and one "half"-South African (Theoni Photopoulos).

The idea for the workshop arose out of a chance conversation at an international conference between Dr Res Altwegg (of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, SANBI) and David Borchers.

It was adopted as a project by the zoology and statistics departments, who were "overwhelmed" by the response to their call for applications. In total, 66 staff and students from UCT, SANBI, the Universities of Pretoria and Stellenbosch and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University participated in the four-day workshop.

This was double the anticipated number. Many late applicants had to be turned away.

With their strong biological backgrounds, the St Andrews' statisticians were able to convey concepts and applications of modern statistical approaches in a way that resonated with the biologically-trained participants, many of whom brought along their own data sets to work with.

It was also a unique opportunity to experience innovative teaching approaches, and UCT staff are already planning to acquire the wireless "clickers" that were a dominant feature of the workshop interactions - and a source of much hilarity.

The success of the workshop has already led to plans for a repeat exercise. UCT and St Andrews University have an existing memorandum of understanding and it is hoped that this will pave the way for more activities of this nature. St Andrews were the main funders of the workshop and participants paid a nominal fee.

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