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Bottom of the Barrel?

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Help wanted: Genomics-based company with no time for training seeks the impossible — a skilled bioinformaticist with good balance of science and IT background. Anyone?

By Meredith W. Salisbury

Companies looking for trained bioinformaticists have been scraping the bottom of the barrel for years. In an effort to fill the void, they tapped other barrels — and still spend countless hours and dollars hiring biologists or computer scientists and trying to bring them up to speed in the other discipline. But a new breed of bioinformaticist is coming to genomics: these people have gotten interdisciplinary educations designed to even out science-heavy or computer-intensive backgrounds and fill in the gaps on the other side. More and more of these programs are popping up, thanks in part to demand by the industry itself.

For someone looking to get into the field, university programs offer plenty of choices: undergraduate and master’s degrees (with thesis or without), PhDs, and the typically part-time academic certificates.

The Discipline

Jung Choi, coordinator of Georgia Institute of Technology’s bioinformatics master’s program, says the school launched the degree and accepted its first students in 1999 when people there saw that there would be “a tremendous need” for bioinformaticists. “They realized that relying on PhD programs just wasn’t going to be enough,” he says, citing the small numbers enrolled for their doctorates and the length of time they take to complete. For a professional bioinformaticist, he says, “it seemed like a master’s program would make a lot more sense.” Georgia Tech students spend three semesters in classes and also take a summer internship at places such as Argonne National Labs, the CDC, and Merck.

Across the board, the emphasis at many universities has been on professional training — often because companies in the area are so vocal about their need for graduates with these skills. The University of California at Santa Cruz, for instance, began its certificate program in the spring of 2000 after companies and professionals lobbied the school to start a course series for people crash-learning bioinformatics.

And North Carolina State University, which started its master’s and PhD program in 1999, developed the degrees after “hearing from companies around Research Triangle — they loved our graduates, but it wasn’t the right kind of training for what they needed now,” says NCSU’s Barbara Sherry, director of genomic sciences graduate programs. At NCSU, the majority of bioinformatics students are pursuing a PhD instead of the alternative, a non-thesis master’s. NCSU also includes an internship possibility, and students have gone to GlaxoSmithKline, Incellico, Jackson Laboratory, PPGx, SAS Institute, and Syngenta, according to Sherry.

The graduates of these programs, though small in number, have done well. Of the four bioinformatics students who got a master’s at NCSU last year, Sherry says, “all four found employment in the industry.” Georgia Tech’s Choi has seen the same thing. Of the 11 or so students who have graduated from that program, “all the ones I know of have found jobs in industry.” From what he’s heard, the average starting offer for students of the master’s level has been $50,000 to $60,000.

At UCSC, the scenario’s a little different. The certificate program there is geared toward working professionals, so most people take night and weekend classes for a year or year and a half. According to program director Bettina Oelke, about half of the students enrolled are considering a career change into bioinformatics, and the other half are already in the field and trying to gear up on subjects they may have missed. Oelke says, “We can’t really promise anyone they’re going to get a job as a result of the certificate, but it can help if you’re going up against someone who doesn’t have it.” And with companies desperate for good people, just about anyone with a solid bioinformatics foundation shouldn’t have trouble getting hired.

One of the primary goals at these places is to round out skewed backgrounds. People trying to become bioinformaticists from either a pure IT or a pure biology foundation tend to have a rough time, and from a company’s perspective, “those are both lousy options,” says NCSU’s Sherry. Schools usually allot equal time for mandatory biology and computer science classes, with a slate of electives to make up the discrepancies between students’ existing knowledge. Most offer introductory classes in biology and computer science for the neophytes.

The Reward

In the long run, the catching up by both sides is well worth it. Todd Smith, president of bioinformatics firm Geospiza, says, “In our situation where we have software products and services, you need a really good balance” of science and IT. For software engineering positions, he acknowledges he’s more likely to favor a computer science degree over a biology degree — but someone without the biology background will probably face communication problems and not be able to solve bioinformatics issues as quickly.

People at software-minded Geospiza are reminded of the continual pull between computer science knowledge and an understanding of biology. At weekly staff meetings, someone gives a 15- or 20-minute informal lecture on some aspect of genomics. For example, says Smith, “We’ll go through what a primer is and why you need one in sequencing and where they come from.”

A problem inherent to the field, he says, is “there’s a lot of risk in the hiring process.” Because there are so many different balances between the IT and biology aspects, bioinformatics jobs vary significantly and people often apply for jobs where they misunderstand what’s being asked of them. “You have to be really clear about what the job description is when you start the interviewing process,” Smith says.

Though his own company is small — the staff is at a dozen right now — he predicts that when Geospiza hires in the future, people with degrees from the new, integrated bioinformatics programs will be extremely valuable.

Those already in bioinformatics, or looking to get into the field, often solve the problem themselves by taking a handful of classes to cobble together the rudiments of the other discipline. But as UCSC’s Oelke points out, that solution probably won’t work as well for people really trying to connect the two pillars of bioinformatics. “If you were going to take just molecular biology classes, you’re not going to get that tie-back to how it relates to bioinformatics,” she says. “The nice thing about [an integrated program] is somebody’s already figured out what are the core knowledge and skills you’re going to need in a bioinformatics job.”

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