With a computer science background, Amel currently works as a bioinformatician at the Institut Pasteur de Tunis, a visiting researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, and for the Pan African Bioinformatics network, H3ABionet, which supports H3Africa researchers and their projects while developing Bioinformatics capacity within Africa.
Amel is passionate about education and knowledge transfer and seeks out any opportunity to empower young girls — to teach them coding and entrepreneurial skills. She founded ATIVAT Tunisia and launched the Tunisian chapter of the Technovation challenge in early 2015 — in collaboration with Orange, the US Embassy in Tunisia, UNICEF and UN Women in Tunisia — to help young girls learn how to address challenges in their communities by designing mobile applications.
I wondered if you could just start by telling me your name and giving me an overview of the work that you do and your overall aims in your work.
I’m a bioinformatician with a background in computer sciences and a Ph.D. in bioinformatics — the use of computer sciences and modeling to analyze biological data. I have been working in Pasteur Institute for almost three years now. I’m mainly involved with an African capacity-building bioinformatics project that aims to develop bioinformatics skills in the continent that supports H3Africa researchers and their projects.
I started being involved within the Mozilla Open Science Lab activities just nearly two years ago. I’m really glad I did because bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field — you need skills in biology, computer sciences, statistics, and mathematics. We really need to collaborate with each other to create bioinformatics, which is why I really like the idea of open science, open sharing, and knowledge transfer.
Thinking about your work, could you highlight for me a specific time or example of where you really felt a sense of success.
I really love working in multi-disciplinary teams, and I really feel a sense of success when we bring a whole team together to achieve a goal — like when we succeed in solving a problem or succeed at delivering a training. I really enjoy success related to efficient team work.
Is there a specific teamwork story that you could tell me?
Yes. I can remember something very recent. There was a group of us teaching together — a collaboration between the Pasteur Institutes network and the African network on which I’m working. It was quite successful because we managed to overcome all the challenges faced together, and all the teachers collaborated quite openly and were supportive of each other — sharing the teaching materials, helping each other even during the course. It was really quite successful.
Great. Thank you. How about an example of a challenge?
What really bothers me is working in a non-open environment in which you feel the negative, competitive spirit. We need to have a collaborative spirit to help advance scientific research. Sometimes you even feel like you are doing your best to achieve a goal and you feel discouraged by the negativity of the environment.
How do you approach addressing this when it comes up?
I keep trying and work harder — to show them it’s possible and that they are wrong.
Turning now to the broader issue in the Mozilla universe of keeping the web open and free, what for you is the open internet, and I want to emphasize here the “for you” part?
The open internet — and open source — is combining everyone’s efforts to build resources for the community and to use the success of a project or a team to make others successful — to help them achieve their goals. When the scientific community has access to a lot of resources, it accelerates and improves the scientific research quality. If you’re just working in your corner and don’t consider what’s happening in the community, you might spend a lot of time trying to code something, only to find out that another person, working in another place, just did exactly the same thing.
Can you give me an example of how these open aspects have been important for you?
It really happened to me a lot — learning about what’s going on in the field. I was able to make use of existing tools and softwares and connections with people I would never have met in real life — it was very useful.
As much as you can also give me a specific example — I am looking for specific anecdotes — the details can be quite important.
I’ll try to think of some computer examples.
Digging more into Mozilla, how did you get involved with them, and what has that been like, or felt like for you?
I first met someone from the Mozilla Foundation when I was part of an exchange program, TechWomen, for women from Africa, Middle East, and Central Asia. We got to work with women from Silicon Valley during the whole month, and I met someone from Mozilla there. We were mainly talking about the open internet, open access, etc. There was integration of this program which included visiting Tunisia, and inviting them to visit Pasteur Institute. We organized a whole session about women in science.
The person from Mozilla said there’s a lot of interesting scientific research going on, and that we should get connected to the broader community — so I did. She did a presentation about Mozilla Science Lab and then she connected me with some people who were later involved with me in the study group calls — this is how it started.
Who was the person who did the presentation and connected you?
Her name is Larissa Shapiro. She is based in the San Francisco Office.
Then you got involved with a study group?
Yes. I have attended the study group calls and been inspired by all the study groups stories — but it wasn’t easy to get it started — it’s complicated. The open science and knowledge sharing culture still needs to be further developed. When a colleague of mine and I started talking to some of the colleagues from the communication and technology transfer division, who were curious to learn more about this open ecosystem idea, information started getting around — emails were sent to all the researchers in the institute. We got many positive answers from researchers, especially those interested in bioinformatics — they really welcomed the idea. Some lab heads also joined the movement.
Can you tell me about a time where this involvement with Mozilla has had some sort of impact on either your personal life, your work or your organization?
From the organization side, the main advantage is that we manage the group activities together — some people who would have never taken the time to discuss together, and to think about sharing and working together, so that was great.
It was really great for me because it was an opportunity to get connected to a broad and diverse community. I really learned a lot from so many Mozilla Science Lab members. I was also involved in the Fellows Retreat this summer in Nairobi. I enjoyed working closely with the fellows and hearing about the projects they developed to help their community. We discovered that we are connected to the same people — we have the same collaborators. It was so great to see it’s a small world. Then in the African network in which I am working, we also encouraged young researchers to start study groups in different nodes. One started in Sudan, and the person leading it was a PhD student who was part of our training. Then, by chance, one of the trainers involved in those courses was a Mozilla Fellow. He encouraged them to start a study group. Everyone was encouraging people to get involved. We all know each other, but we didn’t know that we are all involved with the same kind of stuff.
It showed you connections that existed that you didn’t know where there?
Absolutely, yes. By participating in the different meetings you learn a lot — like leadership skills, how to better organize meetings in your community, how to better set up interest groups and motivate members, and about collaboration opportunities — it’s very useful. Moreover, the meetings are rather casual — you don’t feel the pressure. It’s fun, and at the same time it’s also a very good way to learn.
What would you highlight around specific things you’ve learned? You’ve already discussed leadership skills, how to organize meetings and how to attract people. What are some other things that are different now because of your involvement?
I’ve learned about some tools used for mapping that some of the Mozilla Fellows or people involved in the study groups are working on. Also, I’ve learned some technical skills.
And technical skills; do you mean coding?
Yes, some coding, some packages that exist that I never heard about before. I’ve also learned about Software Carpentry, and how to better deliver training, and how to organize teaching material, which is great.
That’s super helpful. Thank you. What feedback would you have? Can you tell me about a time that this involvement with Mozilla did not meet your expectations? Do you see room for improvement?
It really has met my expectations — I even lean on them much more than expected. You learn about your community and build a strong active community around a topic, which is great. I think the Mozilla staff provides a lot of support. Whenever you ask for a one-to-one meeting they are always happy to do it, which is quite helpful. We are trying to organize something on the African level to raise awareness about the importance of open science and the importance of sharing and skills transfer — it’s one of the best ways to learn and evolve as a community.
Why do you think you were drawn to Mozilla, and drawn to these ideas? There are lots of people who are worried about people stealing their work, or scooping them. I don’t know how to translate that, but it’s like they’re starting on an area of research and if they talk about it too much, someone might get that idea and take it further first, and I’ve heard that this is a fear. Why isn’t it a fear for you? What do you value?
When we first started in Tunis, this was the first discussion we had — people were really afraid about sharing. They kind of wanted to protect their ideas. We decided to share very basic things in the beginning by sharing skills in basic programming and in basic statistics. We wanted to show that even with this very basic knowledge we can still do a lot of stuff together. Then, when they see a lot of open projects, and people are sharing openly, respecting each other, and collaborating together — it’s encouraging. When you see that the others are sharing openly, you see that it’s okay to share your knowledge and skills.
In this work you’ve done around organizing events and bringing people together, what stands out as a success for you, specifically with the Mozilla work?
We participated through the Mozilla Global Sprint last year — it was in June. It’s the most successful event we have been running in Tunis. People were so excited about the idea of working at the same time and on the same projects as others from everywhere in the world. Do you know about Global Sprint?
I know the basics. Could you give a quick overview, for those who don’t?
Sure. They open a call for projects, and people submit project suggestions. It can be a project based on a data set adressing specific questions or it can be developing a curriculum for whatever topic. The idea is to get everyone connected during these two days working at the same times, on these projects.
In Tunis, we chose an open data curriculum project to contribute to. It was really super exciting because we managed to gather everyone in the same room here in Pasteur. We had a Master’s student, Ph.D. student, and lab directors working together. It generated a lot of interesting discussions and a nice collaborative atmosphere within the Institute. People were coming from different labs and happy to discuss things together and contribute. It was really exciting for everyone to feel like you are contributing to an international project — seeing everyone on the video screen. We also got the chance to discuss some of the project leads.
In your involvement with Mozilla, what’s been the hardest or the most challenging?
People in our communities are afraid that we will do all the work and that Mozilla will take all the credit. The most challenging thing for me is to gather people in your area and to try to explain that it’s fine — Mozilla is leading the projects, but you are doing the work for you, for your community, and for your institute. Mozilla is offering the platform and facilitates the connection, the access to different projects, and the access to different lessons in the case of study groups. It was very hard in the very beginning to explain this to people here in Tunis.
We’re collecting stories along that broad range, and I’m wondering how might these stories that we’re collecting be useful to you, if at all.
I think it would be great to see what is being done in the same way, and what is being done differently — in different countries and in different aspects, because it can you give you ideas to better work with your community. Of course there are some applicable ideas and some that are not applicable in context because of some cultural barriers — but it’s always great to hear what is working out there — and sometimes you can adapt or you can help connecting people with each other.
Is there anything more that you want to tell me or ask me?
The Mozilla network has been very beneficial for me — being connected and getting to meet the Mozilla study group leads and the Mozilla Fellows during the training last year. It was really great to learn and exchange ideas at the Mozilla Fellows Retreat this summer. I’m really trying to get more people from the African network involved.
When you talk to people from the African network, and you try to get them involved, what do you say that they’re going to get out of it? What do you tell them the benefits are going to be?
The first thing that comes up is the benefit of being connected to the community — with those who share the same values and work on similar topics. I tell them how great it is to have all the resources available to help you set up a group in your community. Even just setting up a website, setting up the lessons, and the listing of the different lessons — it’s quite easy to do it with the provided tools and platform. I think people are always attracted by the idea of having access to existing resources, like source code, and ways to build on the top of it to customise it. Being able to contribute to different projects and engage with a broader community always seems very rewarding.
The benefit of connection has come up quite a bit as we’ve spoken. What comes from connections other than what you mentioned — specifically not doing work that someone else is already doing, or not reinventing the wheel. What other benefits do you see emerging from these connections?
Sometimes a very simple and short discussion teaches you a lot of things — like how to manage a team, and recognizing we are all different and we have completely different ways of seeing things — how we deal with problems, or handle different projects. It’s really great to interact with different people and to share these things with them.
What comes from seeing those differences — the range of problems, the range of projects, the range of perspectives?
It can simply change your way of solving a given problem. Sometimes you can consider taking a piece from one case and another piece from another case, and combine.
What I’m hearing is that you’re learning a lot of very practical things to implement your day-to-day work and to solve challenges as they arise.
Great. Thank you so much, Amel.