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Bioinformatics Gains a Foothold on US Campuses: 30 Universities Now Offer Degrees


Until recently, aspiring bioinformaticists were faced with few educational options. With only a handful of formal bioinformatics degree programs to choose from through the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the greater part of the field’s present workforce is made up of biologists or computer scientists who were able to bridge the gap between the two fields in a number of ways — through self-teaching, acquiring multiple degrees, or individualized tracks within biology or computer science degree programs.

But the turn of the millennium witnessed a boom in specialized degree programs intended to train the next generation of the bioinformatics workforce. While only six formal bioinformatics programs existed before 1997, BioInform’s recent survey of US programs found that nine new programs were launched in 2000 alone.

There are now 30 US universities that offer formal bioinformatics or computational biology degree programs — 7 BS programs, 22 MS programs, and 21 PhD programs. Two universities, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pennsylvania, offer all three degree levels.

BioInform found that a total of 34 students graduated with bioinformatics degrees in 2000: 6 BS, 2 graduate certificates, 16 MS, and 10 PhDs. In 2001, there were 48 graduates: 9 BS, 2 graduate certificates, 21 MS, and 16 PhDs. Of the 2000 graduating class, 58 percent headed toward jobs in industry while 42 percent moved on to positions in academia, government, or non-profit research institutions. In 2001, 66 percent of the graduating class took jobs in industry and 34 percent went to the non-profit sector.

Of the current student base in the programs we surveyed, 63 percent are male and 37 percent are female.

Most universities covered in the survey maintain a small core faculty group dedicated to the bioinformatics program but also draw on faculty from a broad range of departments, including molecular biology, agronomy, animal science, applied mathematics, statistics, physics, electrical and computer engineering, neurology, zoology, and law.

A number of the universities offered informal bioinformatics training as a multidisciplinary effort for a number of years before launching a formal program. Most cited the strong demand for bioinformaticists in both the private and the public sectors as the impetus for the mounting number of new degree programs. Cornell and Yale, among several other universities, have said they are considering adding a bioinformatics degree program within the next several years.

But the demand for trained bioinformaticists has also given rise to a number of other educational alternatives for students interested in gaining bioinformatics skills without delving into a formal degree track. Several universities offer workshops and short courses in bioinformatics and others offer diploma or certificate programs. The S-Star initiative, for example, was recently formed to provide students with bioinformatics skills through online lectures delivered by leading bioinformaticists.

While these efforts may not lead to a formal degree, organizers pointed out that bioinformatics skills are in such high demand that a bioinformatics degree is often not required to land a job.

Conversely, many feel that BS degrees in bioinformatics are of little value and should only serve as a stepping stone toward graduate work. “The trend in industry is to hire at the MS level,” said Susan Smith at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Bioinformatics majors will have to get a master’s if they want to continue in that field.”

— BT




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