Despite having spent (almost) four years of my life studying Bioinformatics, I couldn’t precisely define it now if you asked me to. Yes, I can expand the name – the application of computer science to biological question. So what, then, is Computational Biology?*
Alright then, one can say, Bioinformatics is is application of biology to computer science. Like … (grappling desperately for buzz words) … genetic algorithms! And … Um*…
So what’s going on? Do I know nothing? Or do I pull the standard “Bioinformatics is like Life and Beauty. Definition varies from person to person.” (It does, by the way.)
Wait, lets start over, with the standard lines everybody loves to use, “With the exponential increase in the amount of biological data available today, it is increasingly important to use computational apporaches to arrive at solutions to critical biological questions. Bioinformatics is the name of the field that intgrates computer science and biology. It is a multi-disciplinary field, with applications in structural biology, biophysics, pharmaceutical industries, genomics, micrbiology, microarray technology,” and a whole lot more. There is Big Money in it.
Obviously, the result is a disaster, with Universities jumping into “hot”, “cutting edge” courses feet first, some of them (like mine) with all the requisite hardware, but no experienced or established people. No real professors who do real research work. Of course, most universities I know of don’t give profs/lecturers time to do anything but speak, but that is an issue for a different rant. The students who are produced are confused more often than not, and since they joined such a broad based course, have no idea where they are going.
So, with your fingers stuck in several pies, what are the odds that you’ll actually know something in the field? Wouldn’t it be better to do a course in say, biophysics, and then go to bioinformatics? At least in India? (But where is a good biophysics course? And this assumes that you know what you want to do at 17-18. Most of us are not that lucky.)
Bioinformatics, I believe, is not a specialization like most (respected) industry people and research scientists believe. It is a base course to leap into an interesting field, it allows you to have a good general idea, the big picture. It is an amalgamation of a number of streams, and so being rather new, it’s still in the turbulent phase. It is what will one day, I imagine, be essential to most biology related fields, maybe even others, and be integrated so throughly that it might lose its identity as a field. Maybe. I imagine it will eventually stop being an imperfect patchwork quilt of courses and start being a solid base course. It’s like doing a B. Sc. physics when you are confused. You can go where you want. And you have time to figure it out. Four whole years. (Far be it from me to compare it to Physics. Physics is the mother of all science. B. Sc. Biology is irrelevent with the course contents these days. B. Sc. Maths rarely has the type of teachers that one need to be really interested in it. Unless you are in IIT. Then, of course, you are in IIT).
I still think it is an amazing place to be. Only, with industry deciding that B.Tech. students don’t know anything (can’t blame them), and research groups asking, “but what do you KNOW?” (with no chance of launching into the What is Knowledge? and the Transcience of IT All), one can feel incredibly lost for options.
I can’t wait for it to grow up and become a solid stream, like computer science did, so I can say I told you so.
* I do actually know the answers to that. But the average B.Tech. or M.Sc. Bioinformatics student does not.