“Computers are to biology as math is to physics”

Harold Morowitz

Many of us associate computers with personal communication and entertainment, but tend to forget that research in most of the sciences is facilitated by computers. And biology is no exception. In fact, computer science and biology partner so often that a new field was invented: bioinformatics. Bioinformatics offers an abundance of exciting research and career opportunities.

What is bioinformatics?

Bioinformatics (or computational biology) is an interdisciplinary field in which we analyze biological data using tools of computer science and statistics. In recent years biology has become a science of information—biologists are producing data at an unprecedented rate—genome sequences are just one of the many types of the large scale datasets—all of which require sophisticated methods for their analysis. It all starts with sequencing of a genome which requires sophisticated algorithms to assemble the billions of nucleotides that make up a mammalian genome out of the small pieces generated by modern sequencing technology. Assembly of the human genome in 2001 was a programming tour-de-force that opened a new era (here’s a short interview with Jim Kent who wrote the program that did it). By now the sequencing of the human genome is old news, and sequencing technology is advancing at such a high rate that personalized genome sequencing is within reach, making the data deluge an even more severe problem. And unlike the dark future portrayed in the movie Gattaca, this opens up the possibility for the delivery of treatment that is custom-tailored to your genetic and cellular makeup—a future that depends on clever algorithms!

Can I learn this in school?

Most schools do not offer a bachelor’s degree in bioinformatics and the only way to delve into the subject is thru a Master’s or Ph.D. Moreover, bioinformatics is a research-driven field which favors students with a graduate degree. This separates bioinformatics from many other areas of computer science which view a bachelor’s degree as a working degree. And in fact, the rate of production of bioinformatics Ph.D’s can’t keep up with the demand for skilled bioinformaticians in industry.

Acknowledgements: Jeremy Hyrkas helped with the writing of this page.