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What is a Bioinformatician?

Larry Hunter hunter at work.csb
Thu Feb 27 23:56:00 EST 1997

Scott Legrand said:

  Bayer is apparently hiring straight biologists or computer scientists and
  avoiding the interdisciplinary types out there.  At the same time, Wyeth-
  Averst is seeking the same interdisciplinary types that Bayer shuns.  My
  question is which (if either) of these two views is predominant in the
  industry today?

I have substantial experience in brining together computer scientists and
biologists, and I'd like to give my personal view on this question. 

I understand the sentiments behind both comments.  I'm a computer scientist
by training, and I have seen the code written by some very good
computational biologists without that kind of training.  Some of those
programs, although clearly valuable in certain contexts, would be a
nightmare to maintain, extend, or validate.  And I have seen many computer
scientists misunderstand the biological problems they have chosen to work
on, resulting in programs that have no useful biological contribution to

The everpresent challenge of all interdisciplinary work is to avoid the
"master of none" problem.  Surely anyone hoping to do cutting edge research,
either in industry or in other settings, needs to be very good at something
specific.  However, a genuinely strong background in both computer science
and molecular biology is a still rare and very valuable combination.  People
in industry know and appreciate that.

There are many types of bioinformatics jobs available, so no one kind of
person is ideal for all of them.  The best person for a group that needs
someone to write a toolkit of special programs will be quite different than
the one best suited to a group that already has a set of tools it trusts,
but needs someone to apply the tools well to a particular set of biological

I think the best advice for an aspiring bioinformatician is to go with what
you are best at and most interested in.  There are many skill sets that can
be valuable in the bioinformatics industry.  Industry tends to operate in
team contexts, with many experts working together, so you should strive to
be better than anyone else at whatever it is that you specifically do.

In short, interdisciplinary abilities can be a very powerful competitive
edge in landing a good job. However, they are no substitute for deep

Lawrence Hunter, PhD.
National Library of Medicine               phone: +1 (301) 496-9303
Bldg. 38A, 9th fl, MS-54                   fax:   +1 (301) 496-0673
Bethesda. MD 20894 USA                     email: hunter at nlm.nih.gov

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