How to Become a Bioinformatics Researcher

Eleazar Eskin is a professor of bioinformatics at the University of California, Los Angeles, where his research is in genetics and genetic variation. He earned a Bachelor of Science in mathematics, computer science, and economics at the University of Chicago, and went on to earn a PhD in computer science at Columbia University. 

When Eleazar first entered graduate school, he had no interest in biology, and he planned to study computer science. After a few years in school, he became excited by the race to sequence the human genome, and the way that algorithms and computational ideas were central to the “genomic revolution.” Eleazar and his colleagues could tell that they were on the verge of something new and exciting, and this led to his involvement with bioinformatics research.

What is the study of bioinformatics?

To me, bioinformatics is the intersection of the fields of computational science and biology. Bioinformatics draws on techniques from many areas of computational or quantitative sciences including computer science, statistics, mathematics and physics. Bioinformatics is both a subfield of computer science as well as a subfield of biology. Programs in bioinformatics are often in a variety of places, from engineering schools, to medical schools, to the life sciences.

What do you find most interesting about bioinformatics?

What I find most interesting is solving real problems using computational techniques. Biology provides a huge number of difficult computational problems which require computational approaches to solve. What my group focuses on is developing methods to solve these problems.

Are there subfields of bioinformatics that students might not be aware of?

Almost every area of biology has a corresponding subfield of bioinformatics. While genome sequencing and analysis is perhaps the most common area, there are many more out there.

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in bioinformatics?

There are huge opportunities for graduate programs in Bioinformatics because of the current growth of these programs and the relatively small number of applicants. Beyond graduate school, there is now a large biotech industry that is interested in hiring individuals with experience in bioinformatics. Since a lot of the training in bioinformatics is in computational problem solving, bioinformatics graduates are well prepared for careers outside of bioinformatics as well. Our graduates are in a great position to work in any area of data analysis. These days with “big data” being a hot topic, there are plenty of jobs available for the graduates.

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in bioinformatics, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor’s degree?

A graduate degree is not necessary, but there are more opportunities for individuals with graduate degrees.

What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in a bioinformatics program?

Since bioinformatics is extremely interdisciplinary, students should have a good amount of curiosity and willingness to learn about other areas.

What electives would you recommend that a student in a bioinformatics program take?

I recommend that students take as many programming, statistics, and math courses that they can fit. The stronger the foundation of computational techniques that a student has, the better.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in a bioinformatics program?

Take advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of the field and learn from the people around you who may know more about a topic than you do. In bioinformatics, computational scientists are constantly learning from biologists and vice versa.

Do you think bioinformatics is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

What is key to bioinformatics is working on projects. Online courses are a good option as long as there is an opportunity to work on open-ended projects.

What subjects should a prospective student of bioinformatics study before entering a bioinformatics program?

A strong programming background is perhaps the most important. Following that, some background in statistics and background in biology.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of bioinformatics?

Understand that while working in an interdisciplinary field is exciting, it is also hard. You have to learn a lot from different areas. So my advice is to be patient.