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Bioinformatics

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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 biological research.

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 or importance.

"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 on costs.

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.