The field of bioinformatics—as its name would suggest—is a combination of biology and information systems. It is often centered around the study of DNA, RNA, and amino acid proteins, and how our bodies acquire, store, and disseminate biological data. It’s not a new field of study, but as research, science, and health care become increasingly complex and rely more on computational science to improve care and outcomes, it is a rapidly growing field. Read on to find out more about career opportunities and how to get started in bioinformatics.
The Human Genome Project: A brief history
In 1988 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences formed a special committee that would go on to outline a plan called the Human Genome Project.1 Their goal was to map and research human DNA. The U.S. Congress initially provided funding for a joint effort between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Education (DOE).
Scientists set out to map (sequence) the location of each gene on the human genome. They marked specific inherited traits with linkage maps to monitor them over multiple generations and better understand how our DNA works. The project ultimately revealed that we have about 3 billion base pairs along our genome and roughly 20,500 total genes in our DNA that provide a blueprint and the instructions to our bodies on how to function and grow.
The project was a success, publishing its first draft in 2001 with input from 2,800 researchers throughout the world. By 2004, they had sequenced 99% of the human genome.2 Today individuals can get their entire genetic sequence in a matter of just a few days for just a few hundred dollars. With access to all that data about individuals and populations as a whole, the next step is figuring out how to best use it to improve health and well-being. That’s where bioinformatics comes in.
What does a bioinformatics scientist do?
Bioinformatics scientists have many different roles in research, health care, and policymaking. Their job is to collect, store, and interpret data that comes from various types of biological research, particularly around the areas of DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis in the human body. On a broad level, they:
• Create and maintain databases that store biological data
• Develop mathematical models to analyze data
• Write computer programs that can improve data analysis or answer important questions about the data
• Identify patterns and perform simulations based on information from bioinformatics research
• Advise health care entities, providers, and policymakers on what we are learning from bioinformatics data, and how it can be used ethically and responsibly to improve health
It’s a growing field because of the vast amount of data that is out there now, and the potential it holds for improvements in research, medications, health care, and others. A bioinformatics professional can help organizations of all types—from academic institutions and research facilities to private companies, governments, and health care—to take advantage of data in ways that benefit the organization and the people they serve.
What careers can you get in bioinformatics (and how much do they pay)?
Everything happening right now at the intersection of computer programming, big data, and biology is a career opportunity. A few of the fastest-growing careers in the field today include:
Computer and Information Research Scientist
Computer and information research scientists are in demand in every field, including biological sciences. These scientists specialize in creating computer models to solve complex problems and collaborating with other scientists and programmers to develop new programming languages, software, or tools. They can collaborate to design and conduct experiments using their computer programs, and analyze and publish the results.
A bioinformatics scientist develops and uses software to manage large biological datasets—a data scientist for biology and biotechnology. These scientists work with others in a company to research and evaluate the results of experiments or studies, then use that information to identify important priorities for the company. These opportunities are available in industries like biopharmaceutical manufacturing, biotech startups, or research facilities.
A research scientist is a critical part of the bioinformatics team. They often work in academic settings (such as a research university), but there are also opportunities in foundations, public policy organizations, or in R&D at a corporation developing biological products. They identify a problem, then design experiments to answer specific questions. When the study is complete, they submit their data and conclusions to peer-reviewed journals for publication. Bioinformatics research scientists often work in lab environments and spend a lot of time working with computers and data sets.
A biostatistician is responsible for all the statistical analyses on large and small data sets. They specialize in analysis for biology-related studies and topics. They can also help set up or design experiments to gather information that a company wants or needs to make better decisions about products and services. They can work in several different fields, including biology, ecology, epidemiology, and genetics.
A policy analyst might not be the first person you think of when you imagine a bioinformatics career, but they are critically important to the field. These professionals evaluate scientific information, research papers, current public policies, and proposals to look for solutions to public problems. They propose ideas and work with legislators to come up with new laws that can benefit constituents. To advise policymakers on the growing field of bioinformatics, it’s important for policy analysts to have a science and information systems background.
What Role Does Health Care Data Analytics Play in Bioinformatics?
Health care data analytics (HCDA) is the study of current and historical health data. Researchers and analysts use this information to:
• Improve health care
• Facilitate effective outreach to underserved populations
• Improve public health and reduce disease spread in our communities
Studying health care data informs every aspect of our health care system, including care quality, diagnosis, and managing the business side of health care to lower costs.
Where bioinformatics and health care data analytics cross paths is in the opportunities for more personalized medicine. As more information is available for each individual patient, health care providers and researchers are looking for ways to immediately put that information to use to diagnose, manage, or treat diseases.
There have been a lot of exciting advances in recent years in the field of personalized medicine—or as it’s increasingly known: precision medicine. Researchers are finding new ways to apply specific information from a patient’s DNA to:
• Diagnose diseases
• Identify risk of developing specific disease to improve surveillance and screening
• Determine the right mix of medications to treat diseases
• Prevent disease onset or worsening
Bioinformatics professionals are in a unique position to evaluate health care data. They can use it to make decisions about new products, services, or legislation that moves precision medicine even farther forward. They can also advise on the ethics surrounding the use of this very personal patient data.
How to get started on a career in bioinformaticsThe first step to becoming a bioinformatics professional is a degree. An Online Master of Science in Health Care Data Analytics from Marquette University is the perfect place to get started. Learn more about the program and how to enroll today.
- Retrieved on 4/15/22 from genome.gov/human-genome-project/What
- Retrieved on 4/15/22 from genome.gov/human-genome-project/results
- Retrieved on 4/15/22 from bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-and-information-research-scientists.htm
- Retrieved on 4/15/22 from payscale.com/research/US/Job=Bioinformatics_Scientist/Salary
- Retrieved on 4/15/22 from payscale.com/research/US/Job=Research_Scientist/Salary
- Retrieved on 4/15/22 from payscale.com/research/US/Job=Biostatistician/Salary
- Retrieved on 4/15/22 from payscale.com/research/US/Job=Policy_Analyst/Salary