What Is a Bioinformaticist?

ScienceBlogling Sandra Porter asks a bunch of questions, including:

What do you call a biologist who uses bioinformatics tools to do research, but doesn't program?

My snarky answer is: a biologist.

Since I work at a genome center where I'm up to my eyeballs in computational biologists, bioinformaticists, and computational engineers (this is a good thing), I was going to write a lengthy response, but then I read one of the commenters, who very pithily stated the differences (boldface mine):

computational biology (the specialists, focusing on developing and applying theoretical biology)

bioinformatics (developers/advanced users of informatics tools that "happen" to manipulate biological data but really have little actual biology in them)

biologists (who routinely use bioinformatics tools; I guess you could call these people if that's what they mainly do)

Obviously, these are, to some extent, strawmen categories, but, as a framework, this is pretty useful. Practically, another difference (today, anyway) is that bioinformaticists often overlap with or grade into computer engineers: they often take tools developed by computational biologists and turn them into production 'pipelines': improve the program structure, build out GUIs, and so on.

Discuss.

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At my place of employment we have:

bioinformatics engineers - who are mainly charged with tool/pipeline development and maintenance. They are almost universally from CS backgrounds and have a BS or MS degree.

bioinformatics analysists - who will generally use other peoples' tools and pipelines to actually deal with producing data. They are almost universally from a biology background and have MS or PhD degrees.

staff scientists - who are almost universally biologists who do a mix of wet lab work, BA work, minimal BE work (if they're appropriately trained) and have PhDs. And non-research admin work.

post-docs can be a mix of any of the above (and if they're really really lucky they get the admin work too).

we also have software engineers who are pretty far removed from the actual science but who do the best programming.

I'm a geographer in a Dev Bio lab. What I bring to the picture is the ability to turn their data (usually pictures) into hard data (numbers) and create new pictures (graphs and maps) that better explain their assertions.
And yes, my tools of choice are Matlab, Imaris, and various Adobe products (Illustrator, Photoshop, Flash, Premier Pro, etc.)
Geographers were the original bioinformatics users - we mapped species distributions, habitat, and other flora - fauna data long before the bench biologists learned of the value in statistical models. Mapping the spread of an invasive species requires more computation and is far more subtle then any of the work my colleagues in genome mapping are doing.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

Yes, you are right. The people who do the science on life are biologists, and bioinformatic programs are more useful than genetic experiments, cloning and biochemistry - at least at the hypothesis making level. Because you are just faster with that stuff. You can sometimes even just grab some paper, do some in silico runs for an hour and come up with better new hypothesises than when you clone for a month and it does not work :-)

But of course not everyone is qualified or has the time to program everything himself. I personally only use freeware at home and can't program at all. yet. But I'm not in the programming buisiness, but the biology buisiness.

What do you call a biologist who uses confocal or 2 photon excitation microscopy to do research, but doesn't know much about quantum physics?

What do you call a biologist who does SDS-PAGEs to do research, but doesn't synthesize the SDS himself?

That commenter you refer to is me. Readers might find it useful to read two posts I wrote in 2002 which, in part, deal with this distinction (the former gives the terms, and the latter tries to separate some myths from reality):

http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2009/12/04/bioinformatics-â-computi…

http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2009/12/09/retrospectiveâthe-mythol…

I'm not just trying to promote my blog here! These articles really are relevant this is discussion and part of where the thinking of my comment comes from. In particular, they try to give a little historic perspective and a wider perspective of the associated/adjacent activities. Bear in mind that they were written in 2002; references to time in particular are relative to then, not now.

BTW, this:

(who routinely use bioinformatics tools; I guess you could call these people if that's what they mainly do)

should read:

(who routinely use bioinformatics tools; I guess you could call these people digital biologists if that's what they mainly do)

as I corrected on Sandra's blog. (Really as a sweetener for Sandraâtrying to be kind to the author!âin practice if they mainly did bioinformatics I'd call them bioinformaticists or bioinformatics analysts, as they do at John's work.)

Please don't feel my presence should restrain anyone... I'd hate to be a conversation killer... go right ahead and say you think my categories are a load of nonsense if that's what you think ;-)

When I saw "I guess you could call these people if that's what they mainly do" I thought it was just clever teasing :p

Mike - You raise a good point. I tried to articulate this idea better here.

John,

I had a feeling that might be misread! ;-)

(Hence why I corrected it in the comments of Sandra's original post.)