Bioinformatician: Definition, Salary, Skills, and Advice
Updated: Nov 13, 2021
Bioinformatics Definition and Why Does It Relate to Microbiology?
Bioinformatics definition can be hard to surmise. It’s one of those umbrella terms. Nearly all fields of biology are in need of bioinformaticians right now. But if I had to provide a bioinformatics definition I would say it's using computers to collect and analyze complex biological data, typically genetic data. If biology and computer science had a baby it would be bioinformatics. Meaning that the bioinformatics definition is quite complex and requires a lot of skills and knowledge of already two giant fields. So which comes first, computer science or biology?
People can come to bioinformatics from either side. Some are trained in biology and need to do some sequencing and learn a few elements of coding and can become a bioinformatician. Others come from a computer science background learning the ins and outs of computer algorithms and then finding themselves immersed in the world of biology. Either way, both fields are challenging; both are like learning their own language and it can be challenging to learn both languages at once and then combining them into one whole new language known as bioinformatics.
Despite the challenges, bioinformatics can be a very rewarding career option and one that is in high demand right now, especially within microbiology. Microbiology is studying the unseen world and bioinformatics, within the scope of microbiology, is trying to understand the behaviors, function, and community profiles of that unseen world.
There are fundamentally three branches of microbial bioinformatics or any bioinformatics really. There is genetics/genomics which is studying the genetic code of an organism or organisms. When we study multiple organisms we call this metagenomics which looks at the DNA of all the microbes in a community to understand who is there and the probable function of genes.
If you're interested in learning more on this then check out our blog on The Best Microbiome Classes According To A Ph.D. The next large branch of bioinformatics is proteomics/transcriptomics. Here, a bioinformatician looks at the genes expressed in a given situation. They are asking questions such as how does the organism(s) respond under a particular stress condition. Finally, there is metabolomics, which is studying the sugars, amino acids, or other compounds released by an organism or group of organisms.
We are in the age of ‘Omics and sequencing, creating large datasets that are impossible to analyze by humans alone. Bioinformatics can be defined as bridging biology and computer science into a new beautiful language that helps us understand the unseen world just a little bit better.
What is a Bioinformatician?
A bioinformatician is a computer artist, slinging computer algorithms at complex biological problems. They try to understand biology through deciphering patterns and comparing them to other systems. They are master puzzle solvers, taking millions, sometimes billions of jumbled genetic code and molding it back into the organism that it came from. Bioinformaticians may also serve as data scientists, taking big data and creating beautiful visualizations for others to interpret. Sometimes they have a role in collecting data, sometimes they may be asked to do bench work like extracting DNA or RNA, but mostly they are responsible for taking sequencing data and making sense of it, turning it from millions of ACGTs to conclusive evidence supporting or disproving a hypothesis.
While microbiology and bioinformatics may go together like ‘peas and carrots,’ they are not the only perfect pairing of a biology field and computer science. Bioinformaticians may work on cancer research and other biomedical sectors like human genetics and veterinary sciences. They may also be involved with molecular medicine whether for humans, plants, or animals. Energy development, biotechnology, environmental restoration, homeland security, and forensic investigations are among a few of the other fields a bioinformatician can work in. Pretty much anything that has DNA needs a bioinformatician that is knowledgeable not only in the way of the biology of the organism being studied but is also knowledgeable in computer coding. A bioinformatician thus must have excellent mathematics skills and utilize them by using some programming skills like R, Python, or Matlab. Algorithms, statistics, and machine learning are also big disciplines within bioinformatics. To sum it up, a bioinformatician is at the intersection of mathematics, statistics, biology, and computer science. Typically, you need at least a bachelor’s degree in bioinformatics to get into the field, but it’s becoming more and more common to get a Master’s or even a Ph.D. to get into this field.
Bioinformatician Salary and Bioinformatics Jobs
While some of our microbiology-focused careers are specific to those with degrees in microbiology, this is not one of them. You could study microbes, get a Ph.D. in microbiology, and then go become a bioinformatician at a biotechnology company or cancer research and leave microbiology behind. This is because once you have the bioinformatics skills they can be applied to other systems once you understand the biology behind what you are working with. But first, let’s talk about the expected bioinformatician salary and some of the bioinformatics jobs you can go into.
Bioinformatics jobs can go by many job titles. You could become an assistant professor of bioinformatics making on average $94,000/ year, you could become a bioinformatics research scientist pulling in a salary of $110,000/year. Without a Ph.D., you might be placed as a bioinformatics analyst position making $70,000 a year or if you are well versed in the world of computational biology you could be pulling in closer to $120,000 per year. A Bioinformatician's salary can span a wide range depending on which job most interests you. All sorts of companies hire bioinformaticians, from huge biotech companies to hospitals to start-ups to the government and academia. A bioinformatician's salary expectation will be different depending on which sector they go into and the geographical location. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in computer-based analysis, for which bioinformatics falls, are projected to grow 15% by 2029. Basically, if you have the right skills and the passion you’ll find a fruitful and challenging career in bioinformatics.
What Are The Top Skills For A Bioinformatician?
Machine Learning & AI
Data Wrangling & Cleaning & mining
Familiarity with DNA, RNA, and protein sequences
Familiarity with bioinformatics software
Familiarity with bioinformatics databases and general database management
Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS)
Data organization and Manipulation
Day In The Life Of A Bioinformatician
To get a better understanding of what a day in the life of a bioinformatician is like I talked to Dr. Micheal Wienstien. You can listen to the whole interview on our Podcast or continue reading to get a greater understanding of a day in the life of a bioinformatician. His role may be more complicated than most bioinformaticians because he actually has a dual role: he is not only the Director of Laboratory Information Systems at Zymo Research but also an Adjunct Faculty Member at the University of California Los Angeles. So what does a day in the life of this bioinformatician look like?
Over the summer, Micheal teaches an intensive bioinformatics class at UCLA called BIG Summer. Because bioinformatics is in such high demand, bioinformaticians can easily transfer to teaching roles or even do short intensive workshops like what Dr. Wienstien does.
At Zymo, Dr. Micheal Wienstien helps create packages and optimize bioinformatics pipelines. He developed the package Figaro which helps researchers choose better filtering parameters for their sequences. Beyond developing and running pipelines, being a bioinformatician may involve customer and tech support. You may spend time on forums answering other users' questions or giving advice to fellow bioinformaticians.
As someone who did a Ph.D. in bioinformatics, I can attest the bioinformatics online community is extraordinary. There are so many free resources and people are always helping others out the best they can. It’s a very supportive and collaborative online community and part of that is due to people like Micheal Wienstien providing support to fellow bioinformaticians.
Advice To Bioinformatician From A Bioinformatician
When I asked Dr. Micheal Wienstien for advice for future bioinformatics his response was “just do it.” There is such a high demand for bioinformaticians right now you don’t need a degree in bioinformatics to get into the field. And actually, you can get the training online. We wrote a blog post on the 5 free online resources to learn microbiome analysis, but there are so many resources to become an expert relatively quickly and on a budget without a degree.
Dr. Micheal Wienstien knew one person who knew biology but didn’t know very much about bioinformatics. He bought an online course for about $50 and joined the Rosalind bioinformatics community. Within 2 years, he was a full-blown bioinformatician! So whether you have a computer science background or a biology background the resources are out there to get the other half and become a bioinformatician.
Bioinformatician: Resources, Courses, and Training
UC San Diego Bioinformatics Specialization (Coursera class)
Advanced Degree - Try MITOpenCourseware
Udacity, Codecademy, and other MOOCs
Note Microbigals is not affiliated with any of the above links and is merely giving resources to aspiring bioinformaticians.