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Data Glut from New Technologies Drives Recovery in Bioinformatics Job Market

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The bioinformatics job market appears to be recovering after a lull of several years — a trend driven largely by next-generation sequencers and other new technologies producing huge amounts of complex data.
 
Bioinformatics headhunter Laurie Irwin, vice-president of recruiting firm Fortune Personnel Consultants, told BioInform that while the market hasn’t recovered to where it was in its Human Genome Project “heyday,” the need remains for qualified bioinformatics staffers in both academia and industry.
 
As examples, Irwin cited Pfizer and Syngenta among drug-discovery firms looking for bioinformatics talent, as well as next-generation sequencing firms Helicos and Roche subsidiary 454 Life Sciences. Accelrys and Affymetrix are also looking to bring on new bioinformatics staff.
 
At a number of recent bioinformatics conferences, speakers from organizations such as the European Bioinformatics Institute and Boston University openly solicited new applicants to fill their informatics ranks.
 
Irwin said she filled 20 bioinformatics positions in 2000, all in industry, but only eight spots last year. “2005 and 2006 were very slow,” she said.
 
“Now in 2007, I have filled 15 [jobs] already so there are positions — I am looking at the various groups and three large pharmas are hiring,” she said, adding that the majority were in industry, too.
 
However, some major pharmas are not hiring at all. GlaxoSmithKline is in the process of downsizing, according to a source familiar with the situation.
 
Casting a Broad Net
 
Chinnappa Dilip Kodira, director of the genome annotation department at the Broad Institute, told BioInform that his team is virtually doubling in size — to 14 people from eight in 2006. He said he has so far filled four of the six new positions.
 
Kodira said the staffing demand is largely due to new sequencing technologies and the large-scale projects they have enabled, such as the Microbial Genome Sequencing Project launched in 2004.
 
“It’s a huge task. So what we have had to do in the last two to three months is start looking for qualified individuals with some biology [education and experience],” he told BioInform.
 
He added that it’s difficult to find people with experience in bioinformatics, in part because of the changing nature of the field and the tendency of many bioinformatics training programs to only focus on the sub-topic du jour.
 
“Sometimes [training programs] go with the bandwagon. If [gene] expression is the way to go [they focus on that]; if the next best thing is proteomics, they will talk about that,” Kodira said.
 
“A couple of years ago it was systems biology, and I had a couple candidates who looked pretty good and they were all talking about that.” However, he said, “they were not qualified to know [for example], about gene-gene structure or the basic concepts of genomics.”
 
Kodira said he has addressed this problem by offering a thorough three-month training program in which new hires get hands-on experience in bioinformatics without being overwhelmed by having to take on too much, too soon.
 

“Now in 2007, I have filled 15 [jobs] already so there are positions – I am looking at the various groups and three large pharmas are hiring.”

“They get to annotate one or two genomes. It’s not so much about the number [of genomes] but how they do with minimal supervision. In the first three months they [the new hires] did everything with supervision. Once trained, they were on their own.”
 
Other academic researchers have noted the uptick in hiring. In an interview with BioInform last month, Lincoln Stein of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory said that the field is “certainly booming again.”
 
However, he noted that the current trend may be more of a reflection of the high-tech industry outside biology than what’s happening in biology [BioInform 11-09-2007].
 
“During the tech boom, all the talented software developers and mathematicians went into the Internet,” Stein said at the time. There was the subsequent “balloon popping,” he said, which resulted in “all of that talented group of people coming into academia. There was a glut for a while, and now there is a second Internet boom again and it’s grabbing the people away again.”
 
Roderic Guigó of Barcelona’s Centre de Regualicio also told BioInform recently that he sees a staffing “shortage” in the field “because of technical challenges to deal with the data, but also the amount of data we produce” [BioInform 11-23-2007].
 
He told BioInform this week that he plans to expand his team, which is currently around 12 people. He said he plans to add a bioinformatics group leader, postdocs, PhD students, and bioinformatics scientists “mostly to deal with the new generation sequencers and databases.”
 
Tool Shops Need Talent, Too
 
The current hiring trend is equally distributed among academia and industry. For example, an Accelrys official told BioInform last week that the company is “actively recruiting” right now [BioInform 11-30-2007].

 

This week, Steve Lincoln, VP of informatics at Affymetrix, said that the company is hiring a scattering of informatics staff, though he could not provide details on how many positions Affy is looking to fill.
 
“We’ve had most of our resource expansion in the area of quantitative data analysis,” said Lincoln. “Generally, we hire statisticians into that role … senior statisticians or equivalent experience because sometimes you do get people who come from interesting backgrounds.”
 
He said that a very “hot” sub-category right now in terms of career paths is statistical genetics.
 
He added that a driver of this trend is not only the amount of data, but “that it’s a new technology moving into customers’ hands. So you have this uptake of a new tool in customers’ hands, and it’s basically the number of laboratories driving that demand.”

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