The Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING Australia) conducted its first workshop at Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria, aimed at connecting, supporting and educating emerging Indigenous students in the field of genomics.

Genomics is the study of genomes, which is the complete set of DNA belonging to an individual or group. Genomes are commonly used in medical science, but are becoming more popular within DNA ancestry testing and within areas of biodiversity and conservation.

The week-long workshop brought together genomic scholars and First Nations scholars who work within the fields of Indigenous knowledge, bioinformatics, anthropology, bioethics, legal studies, community engagement and clinical research to explore the impacts of genomics within First Nation communities.

Academic Coordinator for Indigenous Medical Education at Deakin’s School of Medicine and SING Committee Member, Candice McKenzie, said the institution is honoured to host the first SING Australia workshop.

“It builds on our commitment to privileging Indigenous scholars across current and emerging fields and disciplines,” she said.

Ms McKenzie said the workshop provided a platform for collaborative conversation and learning.

“I’ve had a pretty big role in the development of the first program, and from my perspective it really just was … [about] being able to provide a platform which privileges Indigenous voices; which quite often is not the case for issues or areas of study specific to Indigenous people,” Ms McKenzie said.

“It was an amazing opportunity for participants to lead the conversation … we had a lot of engagement, presentations from people who have been in the field for as long as it has been around, they did a fantastic job at being able to step back and go, here is the research, here is the literature, now what do you think? Where does this fit and how does it apply?

“We sat in a circle the entire time for every session, which lends itself to Indigenous ways of communication, and symbolic in culture that when people sit in a circle … there is no hierarchy, everybody is on the same level and it doesn’t stop, it continues to go around.”

“Along with the sharing of all this information, there was an emphasis on Indigenous ways of knowing and doing and making sure that was reflected in each part of the program.”

The workshop hosted 24 Indigenous participants from across the nation and 20 mentors of whom half were First Nations Peoples.

SING Committee Member, Ethics Lecturer and Genomics Researcher at Deakin’s School of Medicine, Dr Jacqueline Savard, said this was an opportunity to introduce genomics as a career path to participants.

“At present, there are few Indigenous scientists and researchers working in genomics, but SING aims to change that,” Dr Savard said.

“We hope that attending SING will develop participants’ confidence with the scientific and ethical issues relating to genomic research that concerns Indigenous people and communities, and empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to move the field of Indigenous genomics in a positive direction,” added Ms McKenzie.

“The program as a whole was really fantastic, whilst I was a Committee Member, it was an opportunity for me to learn and I learnt a lot. I suspected my learning would come from the information given to me by the presenters, but it came from my colleagues, my peers, the participants,” Ms McKenzie said.

“We are not a homogenous group and we each bring something different.”

“We each have different experiences which impact how we understand and perceive the world around us, it was humbling to know that whilst we were all different, we thought quite similarly about how we could advance the field of genomics. Everyone was on the same page, it was a beautiful week.”

Supported by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), the workshop will be an annual program for Australia, building on the successful model that has been implemented in America, New Zealand and Canada.

By Rachael Knowles