Q&A with a Bioinformatician

Abhinand Adithavarman is a bioinformatician, pursuing a PhD in the subject, at Sri Ramachandra University, Chennai. He is well-read and a curious thinker, with nine published papers to his credit. When he is not peering at his computer screen, crunching the numbers, he works with other researchers, helping them make sense of their experimental data, teaches bioinformatics to the uninitiated and delivers stimulating lectures on exciting topics. He is a rock-star scientist and the go-to guy for all things bioinformatics! He is available as a mentor with Careers Infinite.

Could you introduce bioinformatics to us?

Bioinformatics is essentially the marriage between biology and computer science, with a mother-in-law called “mathematics” and a father-in-law called “statistics,” and, say, a few other relatives called “physics” and “chemistry.” Basically, we apply computational principles to solve biological problems. Biological experiments yield a huge amount of data, and, as bioinformaticians, it is our responsibility to archive, retrieve and analyze the data as well as determine the usefulness of the data.

How long have you been in this field?

I started with a Master’s in Bioinformatics, after finishing my Bachelor’s in Biotechnology. I am currently in the final year of my PhD, waiting for my defense. My research work focuses on protein modeling and structural biology, particularly pertaining to the methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) protein.

What does one do after a PhD in bioinformatics?

Similar to any other field in the life sciences, one can get into a post-doc after PhD or take up an industry position.

Why bioinformatics?

I have always been fascinated by evolutionary biology, but I couldn’t pursue higher education in the subject due to my disability. Bioinformatics opened a new window of opportunity for me. It is not just a related discipline, but a useful tool to study evolutionary biology. I can use computational models to study phylogenetics.

Bioinformatics also has a few unique selling points: Unlike other laboratory work, if an experiment failed, you don’t have to repeat it from the beginning. You can identify your error, and rework your experiment from that point forward. It also offers flexibility to your schedule, because simulations can be run without supervision and paused and resumed if need be.

Would a bioinformatician be able to analyze data from any experiment, even without a background of biology?

 Protein modeling using bioinformatics tools. Image shows the  E.Coli  methylene tetrahydrofolate receptor (MTHFR)

Protein modeling using bioinformatics tools. Image shows the E.Coli methylene tetrahydrofolate receptor (MTHFR)

Yes. Technically, all data can be reduced to numbers and it is possible to filter out useful information from that. Some of the research scientists I have worked with have been from microbiology, pharmacology and agriculture backgrounds.

Since bioinformatics is a combination of biology and mathematics, would a student of either background do well in the subject?

Yes. The aptitude of the student matters. Knowledge of high-school biology is sufficient to grasp concepts. Bachelor’s in any biology discipline, physics, chemistry or mathematics is ideal. But, even students with a pure computer science or biology background can manage, provided they put in the required effort to learn the other branch. For students from a computer science background, some universities, including mine, offer bridge courses in biology. However, bioinformatics will not be interesting or fun to students who do not like mathematics.  

What are three most important skill sets, in your opinion, that one must possess to be a successful bioinformatician?

First and foremost, one would have to improve his/her problem-solving aptitude. Patience and a fairly good attention span are also very important while working with huge data sets over long periods of time.

What is challenging about this field?

At present, it is difficult to say that all students who pass out with a degree in bioinformatics will find a suitable position within the field. The current requirement is limited, but things are getting better. A lot of tech companies have started diversifying into life sciences, opening up opportunities for us. The pharma industry is growing and needs the work of bioinformaticians in the early phases of drug discovery. A number of research organizations now have dedicated bioinformatics departments with state-of-the-art facilities: Gujarat Cancer Research Institute, Chettinad University and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, to name a few. In addition, bioinformatics is versatile in that it allows students to branch out and become, say, clinical data coordinators or even programmers.

Does a career in this field offer a good work-life balance?

Absolutely! It offers excellent work-life balance. A lot of experiments that we run on the computer go on for a couple of days. We get a lot of time in between to learn or try out new things or just relax. We can also practically work from anywhere in the world, provided we have a laptop of good configuration and a good internet connection. And a lot of the software is available free online.

What is your advice to a student who wants to pursue bioinformatics?

If you are someone who is just finishing school, I would advise you not to specialize in bioinformatics right from your Bachelor’s degree. Get a degree in the basic sciences. Take up bioinformatics in the Master’s level and specialize in a particular area within.

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If you are a student of bioinformatics, my advice is to not limit yourself to the prescribed syllabus. Strengthen your basics in statistics and learn to apply statistical methods to bigger datasets. Learn a couple of programming languages such as R, Python, C++ or Java and database management packages like Oracle or SQL. Read a lot of scientific literature and try to work on small projects. See if you can infer more information from data that has already been analyzed and published. You can make use of all the secondary data that are freely available online. Choose projects that you are confident about to complete on your own. 

Most importantly, this field has grown with a lot of open source software made freely available by talented bioinformaticians like you. Once you have acquired the necessary skills, remember to give back to the community and maintain the good will.