Getting In Touch With Your Inner Scientist

You're a seething mass of unrealized potential. Put that creative energy and your technical skills into something really useful. Say, bioinformatics.
Perhaps your IT job doesn't have that old spark anymore. Business-to-consumer has fizzled out, business-to-business is on the skids, and all those enterprise software acronyms are making you gag. The economy has been cranky lately, just like your boss, and you know layoffs are just around the corner. It's time for a career makeover.

But not just any makeover. You might have considered (and rejected) becoming a lifeguard, setting up a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont, or trying to make a living in a rock 'n' roll band. On the other hand, if you still desire cutting-edge challenges, it might be time to consider something new and different that builds on your existing skills.

Remember, you're a seething mass of unrealized potential. Do you play air guitar? Pop wheelies like Evel Knievel? Perhaps you're particularly fluent in pig latin?

I talked to a young researcher at a world-renowned institution who, while he could have gotten by on his resemblance to Matt Damon, had built a stellar reputation for cloning mouse embryos with a microscope and a fine needle. He modestly attributed his manual dexterity to the endless hours he'd spent playing computer games.

So, what kind of job is on the cutting edge of technology in one of the hottest new growth fields around? All you need to know is just one word: Bioinformatics.

Bioinformatics uses information technology to better understand biology. An organism's hereditary and functional information is stored via DNA, RNA, and proteins. Bioinformatics looks for similarities between a newly sequenced piece of DNA and previously sequenced DNA segments to predict the type of protein the new sequence encodes. This helps focus on the most likely receptors for developing new medicines and the biochemical interactions involved. By interpreting the flood of data generated by the human genome project, bioinformatics reduces drug development time by finding suitable biological targets.

New bioinformatics tools and growing amounts of data on protein structures and biomolecular pathways let certain aspects of drug development and modeling be accomplished "in silico." By managing complex information about how the body reacts, drug development to fight disease can be done with greater precision and, hopefully, faster, better, and cheaper. It's a high-stakes venture, but the potential rewards are enormous.

Forget correlating clickstreams with customer buying habits on This is the realm of ultimate data mining.

Follow the money. Biotech is estimated to be a $300-million plus industry, and, according to at least one report, is expected to grow to a $2-billion business within five years. Because bioinformatics is such a new field, ground-floor opportunities are plentiful for the qualified. Biologists don't have the information-management skills necessary, so biotech companies and research institutions are recruiting IT people and training them. Job openings exist in government and private research, as well as large pharmaceutical, biotech, and bioinformatics consulting companies that develop the tools for integrating and mining this data.

If that doesn't convince you, try this. You will get to use some really honking big computers. I mean, really big.

Biology is overtaking nuclear weapons as the field demanding the most sophisticated computers to handle the huge outflow of data. Companies like Compaq, IBM, and Sun Microsystems are all prototyping biotech supercomputers.

Blue Gene, IBM's $100-million bio-supercomputer, is projected to handle more than 1 quadrillion operations per second, or one petaflop, which is a million billion floating point operations per second. (If such computer power were applied to bandwidth, it would be able to download the contents of the entire Internet in one second.) Blue Gene will be faster than the top 500 computers in the world put together. Dainty, too. Blue Gene will be contained in two refrigerator-sized units.

That Does It! I Want To Be A Bioinformaticist!

So, how does one take this leap? I've done a careful study, consulting top scientists and career counselors. I've designed a career makeover program that will change your life in three easy steps--but will not limit your carbohydrate intake one iota.

Fran Lewitter, Ph.D, associate director for biocomputing at the Whitehead Institute for biomedical research in Cambridge, Mass., says the main challenge for a successful crossover to bioinformatics is the ability to understand the language and problems of biology. It's important to have both interest and enthusiasm in exploring and understanding biological research.

While you may be tops at tech stuff, and play air guitar like a virtuoso, you still need to develop a core of knowledge in some aspect of molecular biology:

  1. Understand how DNA is transcribed into RNA and translated into proteins
  2. Develop substantial experience with at least two molecular biology software packages, for sequence analysis or molecular modeling
  3. Feel comfortable in a command line computer environment using Linux or Unix
  4. Have C and Perl programming experience

If you're thinking, "Ixnay that, dude, where's my stock options and foosball?", stop here. Thanks for reading. If you're musing, "Hey, I can do that!", then this easy, three-step program is for you.

Step One. Get in touch with your Inner Scientist

An easy way to check out your scientific aptitudes and inclinations is hands-on experimentation. It's good to try to imagine yourself as a scientist to better understand the potential applications of your chosen field.

Of course, there are things that one shouldn't try at home. A few years ago, Harpers magazine wrote a black-humored article about David Hahn, an Eagle Scout who successfully created a breeder reactor in his mom's potting shed. Picked up by the police for a driving violation, his car trunk contained a highly radioactive toolbox full of his work samples. Worried that the toolbox hid an atomic weapon, the FBI, CIA, and Environmental Protection Agency were called in. The potting shed was carted away and the ground underneath underwent extensive environmental remediation by government workers in bunny suits.

While cloning the family dog may have some sentimental appeal, other exciting options for edifying and educational experiments exist. For example, you can do your own DNA Paternity Test! I think this would be a perfect conversation starter for excruciatingly lame dinner parties or perhaps your next blind date.

Don't bother with plastic surgery or expensive skin creams. Fix your wrinkles by growing your own skin. You just need a cell line, preferably immortal, and some basic equipment such as a microplate incubator, though you can probably just incubate specimens in your armpit to save equipment costs.

Or you can grow your own Drosophila Melanogaster. Fruit flies are useful models for comparing genetic variation, and you can breed them on rotten bananas. They make prolific house pets as well.

Then, you can learn how to extract and purify DNA from the vegetable bin in your kitchen fridge using salt, detergent, water, a blender, and a coffee filter. (The Society for Amateur Scientists is a great source of ideas.)

To test your newfound knowledge, take a scientist to lunch and try to have a conversation.

To get on in bioinformatics, you must be able to speak to, and understand, scientists. Scientists may not know a lot about software concepts, but it's necessary to communicate with them effectively. While you are conversant with the usual high-tech lexicon of bits and bots rather than fruit flies, biology has its own specific vocabulary. You'll have to learn it. But now that you've performed a few experiments on your own, you can talk shop over lunch about your wayward cell colonies.

Step Two: Learn About Bioinformatics

First, get ready for the history test. Settle down, now, this is serious.

Bioinformatics began in the early 1980s, when a database called GenBank, created by the U.S. Department of Energy, held the first short stretches of DNA obtained from living organisms. In its early days, a roomful of technicians input DNA information garnered from academic journals using keyboards with only four letters (A, C, T, and G) representing the components of the double helix. New protocols enabled researchers to dial up GenBank and deposit their sequence data directly.

The Human Genome Project (HGP), started in 1990, sparked exponential growth in the volume of stored DNA-sequence data, a trend which continues today. High-throughput sequencing--using robotics, automated DNA-sequencing machines and supercomputers--all contribute to an astounding flow of information that needs to be managed and interpreted. We still have little understanding of how genes interact, or how proteins behave, or, ultimately, how all of it relates to disease and its treatment. Making quantitative and predictive models of biochemistry and physiology will be the next challenge.

Although more than 30,000 human genes have been decoded, nobody yet knows most of their functions or how many human proteins exist (speculation: at least a million). Their behavior and effects on disease remain mysteries.

Practice saying "deoxyribonucleic acid" and read up! Remember the big four: Adenosine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. RNA is made up of four ribonucleotides (adenine, uracil, cytosine and guanine) Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids. And so on. And so on. And so on.

If you're actually serious about diving into this subject, these are the books and publications you should pile onto your nightstand--at least, according to the scientists I spoke with.

  • "Using Bioinformatics In Gene And Drug Discovery," D. B. Searls in Drug Discovery Today, Vol. 5, No. 4, pages 135-143; April 2000.

  • BioInform, a biweekly newsletter on bioinformatics

  • Molecular Cell Biology by Harvey Lodish, Arnold Berk, S. Lawrence Zipursky, Paul Matsudaira, W H Freeman & Co, 1999.

  • The MIT biology hypertextbook

    More practical, especially for biologists getting acquainted with bioinformatics tools, but also useful for the nonbiologist:

  • Developing Bioinformatics Computer Skills (Cynthia Gibas, Per Jambeck, O'Reilly & Associates, 2001).

  • Bioinformatics: A Practical Guide to the Analysis of Genes and Proteins (Andreas D. Baxevanis, B. F. Francis Ouellette, John Wiley & Sons, 2001).

    That list may keep you busy for a couple of days, but if you're hungry for more, you can explore even more resources in the sidebar, "Can't Get Enough Of That Bioinformatics."

    Step 3: Take A Class

    Now that you've learned everything possible on your own, it's time to take a course. You may not have to venture outside to do so. The International Society for Computational Biology, for example, runs online courses, and MIT puts its coursework on the Web now. The International Society for Computational Biology publishes a list on its site of recommended bioinformatics and computational biology books. Go to

    If you're ready to go back to school, you'll find fine programs at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in bioinformatics and proteomics] and at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The Michigan program covers master's and doctoral programs, and offers a certificate program for those with doctorates or master's degrees who want a concentration in bioinformatics but not a full degree.

    Congratulations! You're now ready for an exciting bioinformatics career. Of course, this is just an entrée, but exciting careers happen to those who can imaginatively seek opportunities.

    Just one more word of advice: You may want to fumigate those fruit flies. They reproduce like crazy. But at least, now you'll know what to do with those kitchen leftovers!

    Do you have alternate career paths of your own that you want to explore? Or do you want more information about bioinformatics, a weakness that, as you can tell, Wendy cannot resist indulging in? Write to her about it in her Listening Post discussion forum.

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