“What would be your best piece of advice you would offer someone starting out in bioinformatics? Databases, coding, organisation?”
As I do bioinformatics support, I thought about some of the things I’ve learned, especially with regards to talking to biologists. So what follows is a non-technical look at how to keep your interactions with your biologists running smoothly.
When, as bioinformaticians, we think about interactions, it’s probably related to an organisms interactome or what proteins do when they get up close and personal. However the social interactions that we have with our colleagues are what really defines the usefulness of the discipline.
Bioinformatics is a great uniter, bringing together maths, computer science, biology and even philosophy. We are long term ‘interdisciplinarians’ in an age where interdisciplinary science is still almost a buzzword.
Unavoidably, a bioinformatician talks to biologists. Whatever your background it is the quality of these interactions that are the basis for success in your chosen career.
How can you make the most of these interactions?
Know your technology
This might sound obvious, after all this is your speciality right? However there is always the temptation to recommend the latest and greatest to your collaborators. Ask yourself some questions first. Have you actually used it yet? Does it deliver what you expect? Are you chasing technology solutions for technologies sake? Can you explain it clearly to the biologists and outline why you have made your choice?
Even more fundamental one might assume. This is harder if you’re dealing with people from all kinds of lab backgrounds. One day you’re talking to a microbiologist, the next you’re talking to a clinician. It is essential that you have some appreciation of their branch of science. Reviews are your friends, but requesting relevant papers from the biologists in advance will save you hours of grubbing around in Medline. A cursory glance at the labs website for recent publications will ensure that you can hit the ground running. You’re never going to acquire the knowledge they have in a short space of time, understand the limitations of this, and be prepared to leverage their expertise.
This is incredibly important. To the biologist, you’re a bioinformatician. All too frequently they will make an assumption about your background. You might have a biology background yourself, but they will assume you’re a computer scientist and talk to you like they were lecturing a high school student. Or you are a computer scientist, and the biologist will assume that you’re intimately familiar with the regulation of pathway X in organism Y. Make your experience in the field clear, this helps manage expectations and avoid false starts.
A lot of biologists don’t appreciate the back-end complexity of bioinformatics work. The applications they’re used to are simply black-box solutions to them. Often they think that bioinformaticians have a big red button hidden under their desks called ‘Analyse’ that will return the data they want in the format they want. Explain clearly the limits of what bioinformatics can achieve and how much work it actually is going to be for you to do what they’re asking. Let them know when their data is not suitable for rigorous analysis and why. Suggest solutions to these kinds of issues for their future work. This also maintains the position of you having intellectual input into the project, and the benefits that will bring.
All too often interactions that start promisingly can dwindle to inactivity as both you and your biologists get sidetracked by other things. If you’re serious about the work you do, it is up to you to keep the interaction going. Personal organisation is the key here. Tracking your projects effectively, and knowing when to gently prod the biologists for the next round of interactions is all important. Don’t rely on them to come to you, go to them.