Bioinformatics is an amalgamation of biology and informatics and refers to the branch of life sciences which uses computational methods to analyse biological data.
People working in this sector are predominantly ‘bench’ scientists, who prepare samples (from humans, animals or plants) and sequence them using special analysis machines to collect genetic and biological information for medical research and drug development purposes. The machines analysing the samples of tissue, blood, saliva etc create massive amounts of data, which then needs to be analysed to spot patterns and trends.
To use the information most effectively, research and drug companies use bioinformaticians to help seek out the answers in the numbers. Suitable candidates can be life scientists with expertise or an interest in bioinformatics, computer science and statistics – or indeed computer scientists with an interest in biology.
There is a vast array of opportunities within this up and coming specialism, particularly in the rapidly expanding Genomics industry. Bioinformatic jobs include: Bioinformatician, Computational Biologist, Software Engineer, Data Scientist, Statistical Geneticist, Data Manager, Data Curator, Computational Biologist, Cancer Analyst, Rare Disease Analyst, Genomics Scientists, Genetic Councillor, Statistician and Biostatistician.
The most commonly recruited roles under the bioinformatics umbrella are bioinformatician and computational biologist:
The primary role of the bioinformatician is to create the biological data for analysis and interpretation. To do this a bioinformatician needs to structure the sequence information from a biological sample and put it into a pipeline so it can be analysed by a bioinformatic analyst.
The bioinformatician job role requires advanced computer science expertise as they must be able to take large outputs of data and create a NGS pipeline so it can be analysed in a structured way. The pipeline programme for the data is created by a computational biologist using a universal computer language like Python, so bioinformaticians also need to have relevant skills and experience of software development and building platforms for data analysis. All data and analysis will be recorded in a central database, so candidates should also be familiar with LIMS or Bioconductor systems.
Job opportunities are many and varied and include high profile clinical studies like the Genomics England 100,000 Genomes Project. If the subject matter being researched is more chemistry-based, the equivalent job role would be cheminformatician.
The starting salary for a bioinformatician or cheminformatician is £35,000.
Computational biology is used to help identify drug and therapeutic targets quicker and more accurately than ever before.
Computational biologists work closely with ‘wet lab’ research scientists to help design experiments that will generate data about a specific area of interest. They then create a pipeline programme which will be used by the bioinformatician to order the data in a structured way before it is passed onto a bioinformatic analyst for interpretation. The analyst uses the data to spot patterns, trends and anomalies which identify biomarkers or genetic markers that affect disease.
Once markers have been identified, computational biologists use their extensive computer skills to generate and test hypotheses, for example for new therapeutic concepts, based on the findings.
Successful candidates in these very technical roles will ideally be educated to PhD level in a relevant discipline, such as computational biology, statistics or physics, and have experience of using computational approaches on real world problems. They also need a good understanding of data science languages such as R and Python.
Computational biologists work in academia as well as commercial settings, where they are particularly important in helping pharmaceutical companies find discovery targets and assist in drug discovery.
The starting salary for a computational biologist would be £35,000.