In the two decades since the Human Genome Project was completed, the cost of genetic sequencing has dropped from $2.7 billion to less than $100. Simultaneously, advances in genetic editing techniques such as CRISPR have made it possible to edit living organisms’ genomes to make biological medicines and create new agricultural products.
This activity has led to an explosion in the amount of genetic data available about humans and other living creatures—and a growing need for professionals with a background in data analysis and biology who can manage and interpret these data sets using advanced programming techniques.
This field is known as bioinformatics, and what you can do with a bioinformatics degree is “basically limitless,” says Stefan Kaluziak, an assistant professor of bioinformatics at Northeastern University. “We have more data than we know what to do with…and one of the challenges about discovery-driven science is that we don’t always know what we’re looking for.”
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Keep reading to explore an overview of the bioinformatics field, learn how it differs from data science, and discover the job prospects in numerous industries for individuals with a bioinformatics degree.
What Is Bioinformatics?
“Bioinformatics is the intersection of computer programming, big data, and biology,” Kaluziak says. If you’re earning a master’s degree in bioinformatics, he adds, “you’re learning to become a data scientist who can understand relevant biological topics.”
Job requirements for a bioinformatics career typically include responsibilities such as overseeing laboratory information management systems, developing algorithms to support DNA, RNA, and protein sequencing, and creating data visualizations for use in reports or web pages. Other job responsibilities vary by industry and can include biological image analysis, satellite image analysis, or the development of a monitoring process for coating medications.
The general principles of bioinformatics are the same whether someone is looking at the genome of a human, plant, animal, or bacterium, Kaluziak says. First and foremost, knowing how to effectively store and manage large sets of data is critical; after all, the human genome consists of more than 3 billion pairs of nucleotide bases across 23 chromosomes. Cluster analysis is also a valuable skill, he continues, as it helps to identify groups (or clusters) within these large data sets.
In addition, RNA sequencing is similar across organisms with cells that contain a nucleus. (The process differs for bacteria, which don’t have a nucleus.) All cells convert DNA to RNA through a process known as transcription, and transcription can be regulated in a number of different ways.
“Transcription is turning parts of the genome on or off,” Kaluziak says. “It’s important to know how that works and to understand if it goes wrong—how it causes a particular tissue to become diseased or stressed, for example.”
How Are Bioinformatics and Data Science Different?
Bioinformatics and data science are similar fields, but there are some key differences.
Both fields hold specific experience requirements, such as knowledge of computer programming, machine learning, statistics, data processing, data visualization, and transformation. Experience with the primary programming languages for large data sets (Python, Perl, and R) is valuable; so is knowledge of Linux, as clusters of Linux servers are typically used to store and manage large data sets. Another important skill is intuition, or developing an understanding of what to look for in data sets and what to test if something unexpected happens.
In bioinformatics, it’s helpful to build domain-specific expertise in addition to a background in data science. One example is the technologies used in genome assembly, which is the process of deciphering the sequence of genetic material within an organism. These applications are called NanoPore, Illumina, and PacBio, and a data scientist working in a field outside of biology may not be familiar with them.
Another example of domain-specific expertise is writing code for specific data analysis tasks. As you look at a transcriptome, or readout of all the RNA that’s present in a cell, you need to know how to perform tasks such as aligning sequences of genes or annotating proteins. These tasks require not only writing programming scripts from scratch but also modifying scripts based on an initial analysis, Kaluziak says.
The ability to code “on the fly,” Kaluziak adds, “will also prepare students and professionals for long careers in bioinformatics.” The Human Genome Project was completed on very different systems than the ones in use today, just as the systems that will be used nearly two decades from now will be different from those currently in use.
“It’s important to think like a computer scientist,” he says. “The tools of the day change rapidly, but being able to code novel solutions to novel problems will give you longevity.”
Is There a Demand For Bioinformatics?
The overall prospects for careers in bioinformatics are bright. According to Salary.com, the average bioinformatician salary in the United States is $86,530. It’s important to keep in mind that the salary range depends on the job title, since certain roles that require a master’s degree in bioinformatics or a related subject may offer higher salaries. These include titles such as bioinformatics scientist or biostatistician. Roles for nonprofit or governmental organizations, on the other hand, may have lower average annual salaries.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t yet track careers in bioinformatics as their own category. However, the agency’s latest reporting indicates that jobs in computer-based analysis (of which bioinformatics is a subset) are projected to grow 22 percent by 2030—which is nearly four times the national average. Ongoing research and development efforts in the healthcare, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology fields are a key contributor to this growth. Meanwhile, other fields where bioinformatics skills come in handy, such as microbiology or zoology and wildlife biology, are projected to grow in line with the national average of 5 percent, giving professionals in bioinformatics various options of industry jobs.
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What Are Bioinformatics Jobs Like?
With a bioinformatics degree, graduates can apply their training and experience in bioinformatics to a number of industry sectors and different types of roles.
Those who specialize in programming, application development, and computer science would be best suited for roles that emphasize data analysis, Kaluziak says. On the other hand, those who prefer tasks such as designing experiments or working with non-model organisms (those that have not been selected for research before) would be suited for roles that emphasize biology. In those types of roles, Kaluziak notes, you will use bioinformatics tools in your everyday work, but you won’t be tasked with developing new algorithms or software applications.
Another consideration is how the role of the bioinformaticist fits into the larger context of the organization. If you work for a large company in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, energy, or agriculture industries, there are likely standardized workflows for research and analysis, Kaluziak remarks. If you work for a startup or in an academic or public sector setting, your role may give you more latitude to run experiments or write algorithms; however, the organization’s smaller size may also mean you’re pulled into tasks such as tech support or research design support.
Here’s a look at the type of work that bioinformaticists can expect to do in pharma and biotech industries, land and animal conservation, academia, and the public sector.
Bioinformatics in Pharma and Biotech
As noted, pharma and biotech firms are investing heavily in bioinformatics roles as they investigate targeted therapies to treat cancer or diseases of the immune system at a genetic and molecular level. Leading biotechnology trends include the development of lab-grown antibodies and cell therapies, which lead to the creation of highly customized drugs.
“Right now, there’s a huge focus in pharma and biotech,” Kaluziak emphasizes. Firms are looking for bioinformaticists who can process the data generated by RNA sequencing for tasks such as identifying all the genes related to specific cancer and building a pipeline for potential therapies to target those genes. “The Achilles’ heel for these companies is having someone who can program this stuff up.”
Bioinformatics in Conservation
Public agencies, universities, and nonprofit organizations employ bioinformaticists to examine a range of data sets related to animal or environmental conservation. For example, an organization may want to look at sensor or satellite data on forest clearing and develop a model to predict where trees are likely to be cut down in the future. In addition, these entities may look at genetic or imaging data to study changes in a plant or animal population over time.
Individuals who have an interest in life sciences, hold a bioinformatics degree, and work in conservation could opt for a traditional laboratory setting—or they could choose to analyze data gathered in the field, whether it’s near the remote habitat of an endangered animal or at a state or national park. In the latter case, professionals should be prepared for potentially harsh working conditions and non-standard working hours.
Bioinformatics in Academia
In an academic setting, individuals with a bioinformatics degree often support experimentation and analysis as a research fellow or research assistant. In many cases, this research is housed within an academic medical center located on a university campus, and research is conducted by small teams. Besides the general experience requirements in the industry, a PhD is often required for more advanced roles in academia, such as teaching or leading a laboratory.
Most bioinformatics research conducted in an academic setting is not tied to business interests, as it is in for-profit biotech or pharma companies. While this gives research teams opportunities to pursue initiatives that are not commercially viable, it also means that researchers may need to develop networking, fundraising, and grant-writing skills to secure the funding necessary to continue their work.
Bioinformatics in the Public Sector
In addition to government-funded conservation organizations, bioinformaticists may opt to work for government agencies such as the National Human Genome Research Institute, which focuses on health and education, or the Materials Genome Initiative, a collaborative effort of nearly 20 federal agencies. The Materials Genome Initiative focuses on improving human welfare, national security, and clean energy. One effort is exploring the use of bacteria to create a clean type of fuel by breaking down cellulose, which is one of the most abundant substances on Earth.
Bioinformatics in Agriculture
Individuals with a bioinformatics degree may use their expertise to develop more efficient ways to produce food or manage plant and animal waste. This type of work could involve sustainable fish production, the use of biomass as an alternative fuel source, or the growth of plants that can survive harsh conditions or provide a greater yield. “Anything that’s genetically modified, there’s a bioinformatics component to that,” Kaluziak says.
How to Start a Career in Bioinformatics
A successful career in bioinformatics requires interdisciplinary training in biology, computer science, informational technology, and experience in a business setting.
Northeastern University’s Master of Science program in Bioinformatics helps prepare graduates for roles in biotechnology, health informatics, genomic and proteomic research, data analytics, and more. For students looking to pursue their degree in bioinformatics in a faster time frame, the Master of Science in Bioinformatics Experiential program serves as a fast-track alternative. The programs are designed to help students build their quantitative and computational knowledge while gaining teamwork, management, and business development skills critical for collaborative work regardless of their career path.