Systems People

Libby Shoop shoop at cs.umn.edu
Wed Jun 24 15:05:29 EST 1992

Ok, I'm a computer science (csci) graduate student who finally feels 
compelled to enter this discussion, at the risk of being accused of just 
standing up for Ernie because I happen to work with him.

In <1992Jun24.142458.7668 at msdrl.com> elliston at msdrl.com (Keith Elliston) writes:

>: With respect to the systems discussion, I agree with Reinhard, Dave and Bruce. 
>: You will be far better served to be looking for systems people than by 
>: trying to manage a system yourself.  What you get when you look for someone 
>: with a Computer Science background is expertise and a skill level that is 
>: Ernie Retzel

>>>> lines deleted for the sake of brevity, especially since this may end
up more than 2 cents worth...

>I have to disagree a little with Ernie.  My experience with computer science
>grads has been very disappointing.  THe level of understanding some of these
>graduates have about systems in particular, and often about real world
>computing is appalling.  There are a number of people that survive a BS in
>>>> ....

I am sorry for your experiences, but I don't think that they are normal.
While it is true that systems administration per se is not a course taught
to csci undergraduates, I believe that those people with a BS in csci who
are motivated to become system administrators have a very strong
background in the fundamentals of good system administration. Every system
administrator I know who has a BS in csci is far more capable than those
who do not. And anyone who has a csci degree is normally a good prgrammer,
as this skill is required to pass most of the upper division courses at
our University. And I do believe good programmers are people you will need
to further your efforts in computational biology.

>I think that comp. sci. is similar to mol. biol., that is, you can train an
>individual in either discipline, but when it comes down to it, that person
>either has the knack, or doesn't.  When you are looking for someone to run a
>facility that is going to have to work in the real world.... that is, it will
>have to run, and be useable by non-computer friendly biologists, you don't want
>some cs grad who has worked in a cs computer center to try and build the
>system for you.  He will want to have 100 man months of time to build an
>extravagant interface to a simple program, and won't have the time to keep
>your databases up to date.  He also will be ill equipped to make a real world
>system run using the limited resources he is going to get in a biology/biochem
>department.  If he can do all these things... he is not going to work for a
>biology/biochem department, because AT&T is going to pay him mega bucks to
>work for them.  

You have hit on an interesting point here. I do agree that the payscale
issue is a problem and that you may have difficulty attracting outstanding
csci graduates. however, not all of us are interested solely in the amount
of money we will make. And I completely disagree with you about using a
csci grad to help you build an "extravagant" interface. I think that we
csci people just try to lend as much expertise as we can to helping you
solve your problems, and I'm not sure that all your programs are as
simple as you think. The exciting aspect of bringing us into your world is
that we can help you discover ways of interpreting your data that you may
have thought impossible, and we can help you determine what types of
systems that are currently under research in computer science may be of
use to you. Ernie Retzel and I have had many exciting discussions about
areas in computer science research that could be applied to molecular
biology, and most of the time Ernie goes away saying "gee, I didn't know
that was possible".

I will say that I have spent several years now learning biology while
concentrating most of my PhD studies in computer science. But I believe
that it is possible to "cross-train" more people like me and that there is
room for both types of people (primarily biologists vs. primarily computer
scientists) in this field. I need biologists, and you need me. The ideal
working group for this field is some of each of us.

>You really should be looking at the "computer gifted" biologists you have
>around, and invest some training in them.  They WANT to work for the biology
>department... They are USED TO working with tight budgets, and can usually
>hack up some kind of system that will work TODAY, with limited resources. 
>Look at all the people who have posted followups here... how many have a CS
>degree?  Come on, step up... how many of you who are running mol. bio.
>computing facilities have CS degrees?  I know of at least one, but they are
>a small proportion of the whole.  Why is that?  

Well, I am a computer scientist, I do work for the molecular biology
department as well as the computer science department, and I hope to
remain cross-disciplined after getting my PhD. I think there might be
others like me out there who would want to work with you folks, because I
believe that you do have some exciting and difficult problems to solve.
You're not going to get it done as fast without us, so I think you ought
to let us in. And conversely, we won't be effective without you're

How's that for about $5.00 worth? I am enjoying this discussion and am
glad that it is happening, because I think that it is important for both
sides of this issue to be understood. Although my answer to the question
is that an ideal group will have people of varied backgrounds all
contributing to the research at hand. We all have something to offer, and
nobody's talents should be overlooked or dismissed.

Libby Shoop
Computer Science Department, University of Minnesota
shoop at cs.umn.edu
|  Elizabeth Shoop                                        |
|  Computer Science Department, University of Minnesota   |

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