Careers in biotechnology, part II bioinformatics

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Sandra Porter

I had an enlightening experience recently, after I wrote some bioinformatics activities, under contract, for a community college. At the end of the project, the person at the college asked me if the activities were anything like the things that a "bioinformatics technician" would do on the job.

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Well no, I said, and added that I'd never heard of a bioinformatics technician before and I really didn't know what they would do. I thought that the people most likely to use our activities on-the-job would be research technicians or bench scientists in academics or biotech, or perhaps clinical microbiologists.

Afterwards, I was curious to know if such a job really did exist. Since I've been working in a bioinformatics software company for a few years, I knew that my knowledge of the outside biotech world could be a little dated. So, I scanned some job posting sites from biotech companies to see what skills they were looking for. For the most part, the results matched what I had thought. All the bioinformatics jobs fell into one of two camps: either scientists & technicians (wet lab + skills with using software) or programmers.

Please correct me if that assessment is wrong. It's been my experience that people in biotech for the most part either use software or they write it. The scientists, research associates & technicians are the one who use it. The software engineers/programmers who write code, and build, maintain, and query databases, are the ones who write it. There are certainly scientists who are doing computational biology at biotech companies at well, but I think their numbers must be small relative to the other groups.

When I ran a biotech program and wrote labs and instructional materials for my students, it was pretty easy for me to identify the things that they needed to know on the job. At that point, I had about ten years of lab experience. I had been a student intern and research technician in three academic labs, a graduate student, and a post-doc. My husband had been a technician at two local biotech companies, and we had a great advisory board filled with people from different parts of the biotech industry. Later, I met many community college instructors through Bio-Link with similar backgrounds. We could do a good job educating biotechnicians because we had personal experience with the jobs and skills that students would need to know.

None of my biotech colleagues (with exception of one at Pasadena City College) were ever programmers or IT people. As a consequence, it's been pretty hard for community college departments, and perhaps Universities too, to figure out what bioinformatics is, where it belongs, and what sorts of career paths are most fitting.

Is bioinformatics a computer science activity that should be owned by an IT-oriented department? Should we teach computer science students something about the scientific method and how to run gels? Or does it really belong in biology? Should we teaching our biology students how to use software or how to program? Or both?

I'm not sure about programming, but I certainly think all biology courses should include at least some work with digital biology.

As for me, I've seen people suggest programming projects where it appears that existing software would work just fine if the person using it understood how to adjust the parameters.

I've also seen that programming has a cost. Even with as little programming as I do, I still have to update software from time to time and sometimes fix bugs.

I'd rather do science.

Nevertheless, I want to help. I drew this diagram to reflect where I think people fit, and who either uses bioinformatics or writes programs in a biotech company. From this page, you can also hear video interviews from people who fall into some of these categories.

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Click this image to see a larger picture.

Keep in mind, I drew this to reflect jobs that I know something about in the biotech industry - not academics. If you work in biotechnology, please let me know in the comments, whether you think this diagram is correct or way off base.

If you think this is helpful, also let me know in the comments. I can make a similar diagram for an example bioinformatics software company at a later time.

Read the whole series:

  • Part I. Careers in biotechnology
  • A look at the jobs in biotech company, making biomedical products.

  • Part II: Bioinformatics
  • Where does bioinformatics fit into a biotech company? Who makes bioinformatics tools? Who uses them?

  • Part III: Life in a bioinformatics software company
  • How do people work together to make bioinformatics software?

  • Part IV: The tip of the informatics iceberg
  • What about the software engineering and IT side of bioinformatics software companies?