by July 4, 2002 0 comments

What exactly does a bioinformatician do? He does one of three things: create softwareto be used by biotech scientists, use this software himself, or is an academic doing research.

At the level of creating software are the tool developers and coders. These people develop algorithms (roughly defined as a set of computational steps to achieve a goal) and codes for cracking ‘biological puzzles’. They create the tools to gather, store, classify, retrieve, analyze and present the structure of biomolecules. It’s usually here that maximum opportunities exist for those with an IT background and for those who are willing to put in time and effort to learn the principles of biology. This is often the level that is referred to in popular media when referring to the potential of the discipline. 

Creating database tools is one of the most basic things that the creators of software do. Since a very large scientific community will use various platforms, one challenge they face is to make databases that can be accessed via open standards, enabling researchers to work seamlessly with multiple types of biological information.

Another area is datamining, an area which is more complicated than designing and populating databases and which involves creating tools to determine patterns–sequence comparison, sequence analysis, molecular structure analysis–from biological data. This involves creating tools to analyze large and complex data sets across multiple dimensions. It can also be applied to data that is still being collected. Such tools look for patterns as the data set increases and becomes more robust. Tools are also needed to determine trends in data over time. 

These people also need to be able to develop visualization tools to make histograms of data or display a molecular structure in three dimensions and watch it move in real time. Such work requires programming and relational database skills, which few biologists possess. So, in a way, bioinformatics, at this level, play a support role, albeit a crucial one.

Another level is of bioinformatics tools users. These are life sciences or biotech researchers and others who use the tools in their daily work. Though some jobs exist here also for IT professionals at a very rudimentary (often trainee) level, he will be able to move into the level described above with some work experience.

Then there are those who are into full-fledged research in bioinformatics. These are people with in depth knowledge of biotechnology and excellent computational skills. They can also be the team leaders in a biotechnology project. Almost all of them are self-taught bioinformaticians, since they are the ones who’ve pioneered this interdisciplinary field in the last decade or so. Many of them are also the academicians who have set up bioinformatics training in different institutions worldwide. 

Getting there
People enter this field from either computer science or life sciences (also biotech), and grow to have a solid grounding in both. This doesn’t mean that anyone with a background only in one of these fields can enter; you need some understanding of the other as well. So if you’re coming from a life sciences background you’ll need some computational skills and an understanding of statistics and programming. And if you are from IT, you’ll need to know molecular biology basics. 

You have two choices: be a part of a bioinformatics team set up by companies like Satyam and TCS or join a course from a recognized institutions. As part of a bioinformatics team formed in a company, you will learn on the job as you will be taken through structured and intensive training programs. In such teams there is also room for domain experts from medicine, biochemistry, mathematics, statistics, physics and chemistry. 

Your other choice is to independently join a bioiformatics course. It will reinforce your primary skills, give you a good grounding in the other and teach you the basic principles of

Benoy George Thomas and Juhi Bhambal

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