Bioinformatics has been around for about forty years, and so this makes it an area of science that is still very much in its infancy. Because of this, it’s hard to say what a perfect bioinformatician looks like. While many might say they want to look like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie with glasses, a computer keyboard and a PhD in bioinformatics, sadly this isn’t likely to be possible. Therefore we are stuck with a more mundane reality - what skills are needed to be an effective bioinformatician.
Bioinformatics uses a range of areas of expertise, including biology, computer science and maths, but is it really practical to ask everyone to have all of these skills at the very highest levels? If not, what are the most important skills for a bioinformatician?
Firstly, let’s take computer science. All scientists need to be computer literate, but bioinformatics needs a higher level of knowledge than scientists have traditionally been used to. For example, the perfect bioinformatician should, ideally, be able to use specialised software, mine and analyse big data sets, and develop databases from scratch. However, this only covers the IT aspects of the skill set required for the ideal bioinformatician.
In the same way that our Hollywood heroes have a range of skills that most of us can only dream of possessing, the perfect bioinformatician will have skills that many can only aspire to. For our experienced candidate, the ability to evaluate and implement a computer-based system that integrates in with the team’s specific area of research is just part of his or her day job.
However, these characteristics only cover the IT and information skills required - so what makes the perfect informatician into the perfect bioinformatician?
Biology is constantly evolving, becoming more complex, and generating ever increasing amounts of data. While bioinformaticians do need to understand basic biology, do they really need to know it to the same depth as a biologist?
A good bioinformatician has to be an expert in biology as well. Most bioinformaticians were biologists before they gained their IT and informatics skills. As such our perfect bioinformatician must understand the scientific process, and the basic principles of biology. But to really reach the levels of the bioinformatics hero, our candidate also needs to know about genomics, next generation sequencing (NGS), evolutionary theory, molecular biology, cell biology, systems biology and proteomics.
And if that wasn’t enough, finally we come to the maths part. In order to analyse the biological data produced, the ideal bioinformatician needs mathematical skills to develop the algorithms needed to draw meaningful results from the mass of data available, and an ability to apply statistics in the context of biology and genomics. He or she should also be able to master and apply relevant statistical and mathematical modelling methods.
But perhaps it is not possible to have someone who is an expert across all of these areas, so the best candidate may be someone who understands the problem, and can draw together a range of people with complementary skills who can work together to fix it. So, while the the perfect bioinformatician may never exist, in one person at least (despite Will’s, our CSO’s, claim), it is abundantly clear that the role requires a wide range of skills across information sciences and technology, biology and mathematics. However, it remains to be seen whether looking like Brad Pitt (or Angelina Jolie) is one of them…
Feel free to give your comments about what makes the perfection bioinformatician perfect.
There will be a gathering of perfect bioinformaticians on Monday 23rd March 2015 at our symposium in Cambridge. It would be great if you could join us.