Computational biology vs. bioinformatics vs. biotech ...
October 3, 2012 5:35 PM   Subscribe

I am a college freshman in my school's the College of Letters of Sciences. Currently, I'm pursuing a B.A. in Computer Science. I'd like to pursue a more technical understanding of software engineering as it applies to biological system, but need help maneuvering the many subfields.

Biosystems, computational biology, biotechnology, bioinformatics, bioengineering....

So, I'd like to transfer into the College of Engineering at my university. It's quite competitive and my hopes aren't tremendously high, but I need some more guidance on the many fields that combine CS and biology, so I can demonstrate direction and purpose for making this transfer.

The field I'd like to join is primarily software/programming oriented, with its objectives focusing on resolving problems in biological systems. (I usually denote this by computational biology but what's the most accurate term?). Is a strong background in electrical engineering and hardware advisable for this type of position? What types of jobs/what companies do people in this field work? Just out of curiosity, where are the highest salaries being made in these types of fields?

I don't consider this, by any means, a substitute for my own research...simply an initial nudge in the right direction. Thank you for your help.
posted by ptsampras14 to Education (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Systems biology? Maybe that's closer to what you have in mind.
posted by un petit cadeau at 5:52 PM on October 3, 2012

Is a strong background in electrical engineering and hardware advisable for this type of position?

Almost certainly not, unless you plan on some kind of biomechanical engineering. Split your time between learning biology and learning theoretical CS.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:00 PM on October 3, 2012

Check your me-mail for the name of someone to ask for advice.

It almost sounds like you're asking whether switching to EECS is the right thing to do, which may ultimately be a highly local question of the details of the difference between L&S CS and EECS.
posted by hoyland at 6:17 PM on October 3, 2012

First let me say that this is currently a very hot field. Depending on what you want to do, there are a number of different directions you could go in. Computational biology applies CS techniques to understanding biology (or other related fields). Bioinformatics applied CS techniques to the analysis of biological data. If you want to splice genes, this is biotechnology. Bioengineering is sort of the merging of engineering disciplines with living creatures (mostly people) - think artificial hearts, cochlear ear implants, and bionic eyes.

All of these fields pay quite well, though some (such as computational biology) require a PhD and you are more likely to live life as an academic, which generally does not pay as well. Bioinformatics is a particularly hot area, with salaries that reflect this. This is being driven by the fact that there is an explosion in data, particularly on the molecular level, that is driving improved diagnostics, drug development and understanding the impact of genetic variations on health. The future in bioinformatics is integrating the different types of data being generated (eg, proteins, genetic variations, gene expression levels, genetic sequences). To date most of the analyses have been done on a single set of measurements, what is needed is to integrate the data more effectively.

Now, how do you get from where you are to where you want to be? Historically, most people combining CS with biology are either biologists who have learned some programming and/or engineering or a CS student who learned some biology. In the future these fields are more and more going to require people who are well trained in both fields. So, for example, you would ideally have studied molecular biology AND CS to work in bioinformatics. To do it right, it would be at least a 5 year program with 2-3 years in biology and 2 years in CS.

As far as the highest salaries, certainly 6-figure salaries are within reach. A programmer with a degree similar to what I've described can, when coming out of university, probably expect something in the $70K-$80K range depending on the exact path and field they are in. And there is a lot of room in what is a growing field with a lot of upside. Moreover, there are many start-ups and mergers and acquisitions in this area (ie, opportunities for jobs with a rich exit). So, all-in-all, while the path is demanding, the rewards can be great.
posted by BillW at 7:18 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

objectives focusing on resolving problems in biological systems

Which problems do you want to address? A couple different ones off the top of my head;

- biomimetic robotics - you'll want physiology and physics, being handy with electronics a bonus
- electrophysiology/brain-computer-interface - electrical engineering experience definitely, neuroscience
- wetlands modeling - computer science heavy, physics, ecology
- neuroscience - modeling/analyzing network activity involves a lots of comp sci, I know people doing leading edge live fluorescent 2-photon imaging stuff building their rigs themselves playing with high powered lasers

"Bioinformatics" where you analyze already generated data is really cooling off. A couple/few years ago there was a heavy demand for bioinformatics MScs. These days you kinda need some data generating skills on top.

Second BillW that to go far you'll need to earn a terminal degree. It's a huge commitment and no guarantees. If I was to do it over again, I'd go mechanical or electrical engineering/molecular biology double major, focusing on the engineering side and settle for an engineering masters. Still jobs for people to engineer expensive equipment to sell to researchers. The eng/bio combo is pretty rare but in demand.

There's a little demand for contract work building custom electro-mechanical equipment for animal behaviour testing and whatnot. Or writing custom data analysis software. The work isn't steady and the pay ain't any good, though.

Or you could start your own software house catering to the biology field - volunteer in bio labs or even hospital units that are doing heavy data management/analysis and see what they're using. My MSc lab was pitched workflow and data management software suites (we didn't need anything near as complex) by a couple of the larger Life Sciences vendors. It was terrible software and the sales staff weren't very good (very few sales associates actually know the software they're trying to sell very well, much less the hardware). If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, see what solutions are being offered and if you think you can do better... I have a buddy who's doing just that but in school administration software.
posted by porpoise at 7:42 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The field I'd like to join is primarily software/programming oriented, with its objectives focusing on resolving problems in biological systems

This is a very broad description. I know people doing very different types of work (in academia) that would meet this description:
- Some use computer vision techniques to paramatrise the morphology/behavior of cells/organisms for a number of mutants, then
- Some do microarray analysis
- Some do computational comparisons of protein sequences, looking for details of evolution or function
- Some analyse data from next-generation sequencing (eg. CHIP-Seq to investigate proteins interacting with DNA, or mRNAs to investigate gene regulation)
- Some are doing cognitive neuroscience, approaching it from the viewpoint of Bayesian statistics

The skills they need of varied, but there seems to be a common feature that knowledge of statistics and ability to program are important. Knowledge of electrical engineering and hardware isn't.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 4:23 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

*are varied
posted by James Scott-Brown at 4:23 AM on October 4, 2012

I work as a bioinformatics programmer / analyst in a bioinformatics core facility at a non-profit research institute in the great plains. I have a B.S. in Computer Science.

I've worked here for 6 years, it's enjoyable and interesting and I think the pay is decent. Not sure about the highest salaries, it probably depends on your level of education.

I second the relevance of statistics. Next-generation sequencing data analysis is a big area of need right now.

You might want to go hang around over here and read a little bit.
posted by mgogol at 2:23 PM on October 4, 2012

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