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Bioinformatics Careers

What do you get when you combine the world's most exciting career fields: computers, information technology, and biology? If you answered "bioinformatics," proceed to the head of the class.

By John Edwards

"Bioinformatics is a science that brings together biology, computer science, and information technology to study crucial knowledge gaps in the life sciences," explains Reinhard Laubenbacher, a mathematics professor and deputy director of education and outreach at Virginia Tech's Virginia Bioinformatics Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. Only a decade or so ago, bioinformatics was a relatively new discipline. Today, bioinformatics specialists are an integral part of the life sciences landscape, making key contributions to bioengineering and biomedical research in both the academic and private sectors.

In general terms, bioinformatics describes any use of computers to handle biological information. "What almost all bioinformatics has in common is the processing of large amounts of biologically-derived information, whether DNA sequences or breast X-rays," says Vincent Grasso, an adjunct professor of chemistry and chemical biology at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. "The bioinformatics-enabled protein biomarker discovery, for example, will enable the development of safer and more effective drugs, targeted therapies, and molecular diagnostics."

Exciting Times

According to a 2008 study by London based research firm Business Insights, the bioinformatics market will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23%, reaching $4.5 billion by 2011 (compared with $1.6 billion in 2006).

Jean Peccoud, an assistant molecular biology and bioinformatics professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, says that despite the terrible global economy, this is an exciting time to launch a bioinformatics career. "Biology is moving at such a pace that promising new research areas and disciplines continue to form and be shaped," Peccoud says.

Synthetic biology, an attempt to adapt engineering methods to the development of biological systems meeting user-defined specifications, is one of many bioinformatics disciplines showing signifi cant promise. "Gene synthesis makes it possible to fabricate any genome we can dream of," Peccoud says. "This is just one example of some of the more recent opportunities for students and researchers looking to work across different disciplines."

Laubenbacher notes that the demand for bioinformatics experts is currently strong and will continue growing. "The needs for a quantitative approach to biology are burgeoning, which means a signifi cant increase in opportunities for students and researchers with the right training," he says. "To take one example, new technologies for genome analysis, such as next-generation highthroughput sequencing methods, are creating ever-new challenges for the bioinformatics research community due to the large amounts of high quality biological data that can be produced rapidly." He adds that along with continuing rapid advances in biological and medical technology, there will be continued demand for bioinformaticians, especially those with strong training and experience in biology.

Planning a Career

The first step in planning a bioinformatics career is earning the necessary academic credentials. "Bioinformatics is offered as a graduate degree," says Attiula Attygalle, a research professor of chemistry at Stevens. "If you want to go in that direction you should have a good background in statistics and mathematics and some basic knowledge of biology and chemistry," Attygalle suggests.

Bioinformatics Careers

"Bioinformatics is a science that brings together biology, computer science, and information technology to study crucial knowledge gaps in the life sciences," explains Reinhard Laubenbacher, a mathematics professor and deputy director of education and outreach at Virginia Tech's Virginia Bioinformatics Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia.

A solid mix of elective courses in computer science, as well as advanced topics in biology, chemistry, and statistics are also required in order to obtain an advanced degree, such as an M.S. or Ph.D. "As the discipline of bioinformatics becomes more technically orientated, those profi cient within the realm of computer science have the best chance to excel," Gallo says.

"Over the past several years, many universities have launched full degree programs in bioinformatics," says Linda Kirsch, owner of Kirsch Executive Search, a consulting and career coaching company located in San Carlos, California. "These programs offer a strong mix of computer science and molecular biology," she says. "There are also a number of certificate programs that prepare students in many of the methods used by bioinformatics [employers]," Kirsch adds.

Graduates with bioninformatics degrees, or who have received certifi cation in the fi eld, can expect to find employment in a variety of different health-related areas. Attygale notes that employment opportunities are available in the pharmaceutical industry and, to a lesser extent, in agriculture. "One can also...find employment in hospitals to analyze data on how people should be treated, or to gather statistical data," Attygalle says.

Laubenbacher notes that grads interested in teaching and basic research can also find a niche in bioinformatics. "Job opportunities range from positions at academic research institutions to medical schools and the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries," he says.

Future Directions

Tech grads planning a bioinformatics career need to be aware of potential competition that's now approaching the field from the scientific and medical communities. "Many selftaught bioinformatics experts are biophysicists—scientists that became computer experts or computer scientists that became interested in biology," says Kirsch. She notes that these individuals are "an interesting breed," spanning the gap separating computer science and biological research. "They live between the fields in a space of their own," she says.

Bioinformatics is a demanding and rapidly evolving market that requires its participants to stay on top of a never-ending string of complex new developments. "Probably the most important trend in modern biology is the increasing availability of high-throughput (HT) data," Gallo says. The earliest forms of HT were genome sequences and, to a lesser degree, protein sequences. Now, however, many different forms of biological HT data are available via automated or semi-automated experimental systems. "This data includes gene expression data, protein expression, metabolomics, mass spec data, imaging of all sorts, protein structures, and the results of mutagenesis and screening experiments conducted in parallel," Gallo says. To gain biological meaning from an increasing quantity of diverse data will require legions of new bioinformatics experts. Ultimately, bioinformatics requires all who enter the field to expect the unexpected and to ride an information wave that promises to benefit the entire world. "There are many directions we can go with these [bioinformatics] techniques," says Kirsch. "We will sequence more genomes faster then ever before, generating more data than ever imagined and at prices that will become affordable enough to be considered on a personalized medical basis.

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix, Arizona. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, and numerous other publications.

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