And by hot, I mean employable. I’ll get to that in a bit, but I first want to relate some history. Back when I was a wee lil’ Mad Biologist, and molecular population genetics was in its infancy, there was a brief period where people had to be convinced that this stuff was useful (it was). Then it became fashionable, and the ‘early adopters’–people who were regularly using PCR and clone-based sequencing (followed by S35 sequencing)–became hot intellectual commodities for about five years. Then the field became crowded, but ‘good’ molecular population geneticists (whatever ‘good’ means) could still get jobs. For the dénouement, there was a glut, as every department had one already.
I saw a similar phenomenon, which started a few years earlier, in marine biology, where clonal invertebrate biologists went through a similar ‘hotness’ arc.
So what do I think will be the next ‘big thing’?
Well, you probably won’t be surprised that it has something to do with both microbes and genomics: bacterial population genomics.
Over the next 12-36 months, we will be swamped with thousands of bacterial genomes. While some of these genomes will cover the broad diversity of life (e.g., GEBA and the HMP reference genomes), a large percentage will belong to a handful of species (e.g., medically-relevant organisms or ‘model’ organisms). Anyone who can come up with interesting ways to analyze hundreds of relatively similar genomes at once will be in great demand. As I’ve noted before, scaling from a few dozen genomes to hundreds (lots of hundreds or even more) is a computational nightmare, so we will need some new innovative techniques to handle these data (right now, we’re basically taking shortcuts and throwing more CPUs at the problem; as I see it, with that strategy, the genomes will eventually win…).
Keep in mind, there will certainly be funding for this work, as much of it will be medically related (i.e., NIH). And, in my opinion, this need is just starting to be recognized at NIH, so, in a couple of years, the funding should be primed for this area. But you’ll have to strike hard and fast, since I think this window will be open for only a few years, after which we’ll see the same ‘crowding’ effect that happened with molecular population genetics.