By Alaina G. Levine
Today’s bioinformaticists are in for a real treat. With a seemingly endless stream of biological data being generated across sectors, there is high demand for talented, experienced professionals at the crossroads of biology, statistics, and computer science. Scientists who can analyze large amounts of information and present it in a clear manner to decisionmakers are finding the sky is the limit in terms of jobs and career pathways, especially in the big pharma and biotech sectors.
“It’s a fun place to be and an exciting time to be in big data,” remarks Sriram Mohan, professor of computer and software engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, who is spending his sabbatical developing bioinformatics software for Avalon Consulting, a data management firm.
And what an immense amount of data it is, due in part to a paradigm shift in the field, from data generation to data analysis, says W. Jim Zheng, associate professor in the School of Biomedical Informatics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Now, with so much data being produced because of easier and more cost-effective tools, there is an even greater need for specialists who can make sense of the mountains of information in such a way that is meaningful for scientists and clinicians, and ultimately beneficial to customers and patients.
The increase in job opportunities is also being driven by a change in how bioinformatics is perceived in industry and academia. Previously, “scientists and companies used to look at bioinformatics as a tool,” says Wim Van Criekinge, a professor of bioinformatics at Ghent University in Belgium and chief scientific officer at MDxHealth, a company developing epigenetics-based cancer diagnostics. Bioinformaticists would be called upon to answer a question about data; their role was to run an algorithm on a database that provided that answer. “But the subject has evolved from a service, like histology, to its own research arena…. Bioinformaticists are now the motor of the innovation,” he adds. They not only answer the data inquiries, but also, more importantly, determine what questions need to be asked in the first place.
As a result, “there are many opportunities for scientists to pursue a bioinformatics/big data career in the biotech/big pharma industry at the moment,” notes Jared Kaleck, senior director of computational chemistry/biology and formulation development at executive search firm Klein Hersh International.