How many bioinformaticians knew they wanted to specialise in bioinformatics when they were 18 and sitting their A-levels? Probably not a lot.
Considering that bioinformatics is such a specialised and multidisciplinary field, sometimes I think about how I ended up choosing this as my career path. Initially, I went to the University of Kent to study Biomedical Science with the ultimate goal of getting into Graduate Medicine, like the majority of my classmates. When did I decide that medicine wasn’t for me? Probably when I decided I really disliked pharmacology.
I have managed to pinpoint my first encounter with the world of computational biology to a computer practical in the second year of my degree. We had a module called “Metabolism and Metabolic Disease” and as part of that module’s assessment we were given case studies of patients with suspected metabolic diseases and we had to diagnose them based on their symptoms and molecular/genetic information. We used a range of open source bioinformatics software to analyse genetic sequences, identify the causative mutations and diagnose the patients. I found all this very exciting which urged me to take a module in Bioinformatics and Genomics in my third year.
At that stage, I have come to the decision that I found lab work a bit repetitive and boring but had to choose a dissertation topic. At our university, you had to rank the projects you thought were interesting and you were subsequently allocated a project or research topic for your dissertation, to avoid people picking and choosing their supervisors. I was dreading having to do lab work for three months, but thankfully I was allocated my first choice, a computational project. I think this was my first actual contact with “real” bioinformatics. I was involved in a bigger study trying to identify a correlation between the molecular structure of myosin and species size, trying to identify whether there was a molecular reason why a mouse’s heart beats faster than an elephant’s. This involved accumulating sequences from different myosin molecules and comparing them using the mouse sequence as a reference.
Doing my undergrad dissertation project was the most enjoyable three months of my degree. This urged me to ask for masters opportunities with my supervisor’s group. Our university offered research masters in the different research groups which involved doing a year-long project before writing your thesis at the end. No lectures, no deadlines, no exams, just research. This sounded amazing. So there I was, about to start a research masters in Computational Biology, researching chemotherapy resistance in neuroblastoma cell lines.
By this point, I was sold on the idea that I will stay and specialise in the field of bioinformatics. It was something that I found exciting, fascinating and most importantly, I could see myself continuing doing it in the future. My research master’s year was more fun than my undergraduate project. We were postgraduate students, that’s a huge leap in the ranks at university. People know you are more committed to what you are studying so you are acknowledged and respected as a researcher. I was very lucky with the research group I was working in, a group of amazing postdocs, PhDs and fellow masters students and a very approachable supervisor. My project involved trying to optimise an NGS pipeline to study differences between sensitive and resistant neuroblastoma cell lines to the platinum chemotherapy drug cisplatin. I started learning how to programme, working on a Linux computer and learned how NGS analysis works, from a fastQ to a vcf file. It was a steep learning curve but we got there in the end.
Just before Christmas came the realisation that I needed to start applying for what I was doing next, but did I know what I wanted to do? PhD, a job in the industry, a job in healthcare, non-sciency job? The options were endless. I started by applying to some PhD opportunities I found interesting. At this point, I have to thank my master’s supervisor for the sheer amount of references he actually sent. I applied to a few industry schemes, but I had missed the deadlines to a lot of them. Then I came across the NHS Graduate Management Scheme which had a health informatics management track that sounded quite interesting but then January approached and I remembered about the Scientist Training Programme. Spoiler alert, I am now on the STP. Everyone that I spoke to about the STP said the same thing, “it is an amazing opportunity but it is VERY competitive, not a lot of people make it”. I think this is not the approach anyone should have. The word competitive didn’t scare me, I applied and to all of the luck in the world (or hard work throughout the years), I made it and here I am.
At this point, I feel like I am embedded well into the world of Bioinformatics, and most importantly Clinical Science. I have the urge to promote my field and try and make people aware of Genomics and Bioinformatics. When thinking about careers in these fields, people focus on academia and industry but forgetting there’s a healthcare option that sits in the middle. Being part of the NHS and training as part of the STP has already taught me a lot and made me want to stay in healthcare after I finish the programme, but I guess only time will tell.
Obviously, how I ended up in bioinformatics is definitely not the only way in. I’ve met people that started with a degree in Maths, Computer Science or even Physics. Although a lot of bioinformaticians have specialised in a postgraduate level, some bachelor level degrees in bioinformatics has started to pop up with Anglia Ruskin University offering undergraduate opportunities and the majority of universities offering undergraduate modules.
If you are interested in a career in Bioinformatics, I hope you choose the best route for you and please don’t hesitate to contact us if you need more information. If you are already a fully-fledged bioinformatician, share with us how you ended up in the world of bioinformatics in the comments.
Thanks for reading.