What to Expect
If you love math, or computer science, or biology (or all three),
the field of bioinformatics may be for you.
Biology and computer science come together in the study of bioinformatics
(also called computational science). Students learn to use the latest
and greatest advances in computer science to tackle the mounds of data from
The study of bioinformatics is multi-disciplinary. The core subject areas
are biology, chemistry, math, statistics and computer science.
Saras Saraswathi believes studying at the undergraduate level is good because
all these areas are fresh in your mind from high school courses.
"You don't have to know everything, you just have to have a working knowledge,"
she says. She is doing her PhD and she had to brush up on her science skills
when she entered the program.
Solutions are what brought Saraswathi to study bioinformatics. Many people
in her family have been affected by health problems, such as cancer, kidney
failure and heart disease.
She believes the results of her studies will benefit mankind. She
says that bioinformatics can explain what happens to the body as a result
of things like smoking or sun exposure.
"Providing reasons why we should avoid these things helps people make informed
decisions about their health."
Amr Abu-zeid is a PhD student studying medical biophysics. He says computational
science has provided him with a very interesting alternative to traditional
statistical data analysis.
Students can discover new ways to tackle problems where large data sets
are available and little is known about the data. Genetic and protein sequences
are piling up, but there is little or no information present about their function
"To study and characterize the function of a single protein or gene in
the laboratory requires time and great effort, and as such, in this field
computational science could be of use in speeding up research through pattern
discovery and knowledge-based predictions," explains Abu-zeid.
Students at the graduate level may have few courses and exams. Most
students concentrate on their own research. Undergraduates can expect
to have a full course load of science, mathematics and computer science.
A mix of lectures, tutorials and lab work will be on your schedule. Some
programs offer co-op work terms.
Textbooks are the main expense for students. Abu-zeid recommends you buy
all the books that your courses require, but try to find them used to save
How to Prepare
In high school, take statistics, math, computer science, chemistry and
biology. Practical experience in labs is a bonus.
"I would also recommend that students inquire with their teachers about
simple applications where these areas are combined," says Abu-zeid. He adds
that visiting the library and searching online for the terms computational
biology, bioinformatics and computational science are good starting points.
Keep an eye out for conferences and events in your area. You could also
start a networking group to generate interest in the area.
"Learn to use computers in a useful way -- it'll go a long way," says Saraswathi.