U-HACK MED: ‘Cool Science With New People’

Author: Barbara Palmer       


Teammates work on their hack ideas during U-HACK MED 2019. Six teams were awarded prizes in different categories.

This case study is part of Convene‘s April CMP Series story looking at innovations in scientific and medical meetings.

Nov. 8-10, 2019
UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas120 attendees

There’s a long list of good things that came out of U-HACK MED, a biomedical hackathon organized and hosted by the Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas last November, including articles for major publications and eight to 10 projects that are expected to make their way into clinical practice. And for the hackathon’s 120 participants, it was “a chance to shake up their established roles and routines and do cool science with new people,” said Rebekah Craig, the event’s cofounder and senior business analyst at the university’s bioinformatics department.

Unlike hackathons structured as competitive “idea-thons,” aimed at producing new products, U-HACK MED collectively tackled problems in basic science, Craig said. Instead of asking hackers to bring their ideas to pitch, she added, organizers curated a list of projects from across the medical school departments, looking in particular for ones that were stumping researchers. And unlike hackathons that are open to the public, U-HACK MED’s organizers used an application process with the goal of creating teams that were “truly intermingled,” and brought together “a diversity of thinking approaches, training, and cultural backgrounds” to ensure different problem-solving perspectives, Craig said. Their selection criteria included a wide variety of ages and backgrounds, and the result was a cross-section of clinicians, programmers, software engineers, mathematicians, physicists, students, and working professionals who came from across the nation, and meant that a high-school student might end up on the same team as a professor of immunology, or the director of a medical artificial intelligence lab.


Creating teams that were “truly intermingled” brought together “a diversity of thinking approaches, training, and cultural backgrounds” to ensure different problem-solving perspectives.

Satisfaction in the Academic Challenge

U-HACK MED was held in partnership with the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and a sponsor, Mark III Systems. Organizers offered some travel scholarships for students selected to attend, and sponsors contributed to meals and swag, Craig said. The event also included sponsored TED-style talks, which brought in leading figures who talked about the future, not “about selling products,” she added.

Another difference between U-HACK MED and many other hackathons: the lack of emphasis on competition for prizes. Twelve teams competed, and six teams were awarded prizes, including “Most Out of the Box,” “Most Likely to Become a Startup,” and “Next Sci-Fi Blockbuster Award,” which was given to the team with the highest wow-factor score. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in the academic challenges,” Craig said. “People who come, come for that reason.” Some winners also are given travel awards to attend scientific conferences, Craig said.

The results of the first hackathon, held in 2018, exceeded his expectations, said Gaudenz Danuser, chair of the Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics at UT Southwestern. “Of the 12 projects, eight to 10 emerged from the two-day hackathon with actionable outcomes,” said Danuser, “We can now collaborate further with these teams to continue developing and polishing their solutions to the point of bringing these innovations to the patient bedside.”

U-HACK MED has been so successful, in fact, that Craig has had to rethink the hackathon’s organization, she said. The teams tended to grow on site, as excited participants invited others to join them at the event, she said. “We might assign six people to a team, and by the end of the event, there were 15 people,” she said. “It got a little unwieldy.” This year, instead of one hackathon, U-HACK MED will separate into two events, each with a narrowed focus.

Craig said they also are rethinking the timing of the event, which U-HACK MED describes as a 26-hour-long “marathon of collaborative, exploratory computer programming.” A weekend-long hackathon in advance of a conference is fatiguing, both physically and mentally, she said. This year, they are going to move a hackathon to the end of the event, and include workshops during the event to prepare participants, she said. Instead of meeting one another at the hackathon’s beginning, she said, “participants will be interacting throughout the conference.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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