By:  Eliza Brockwell
March 2nd, 2018

Big data meets biology

It’s safe to say that people are generally more complicated than grapes. But until the human genome was mapped in the 1990s, we never knew that grapes have about 50% more genes than we do. Scientists have since discovered that numbers of genes don’t necessarily reflect complexity — so don’t worry about super grapes taking over the world.

Discoveries like these wouldn’t be possible without a great understanding of genetics and the computer tools to process huge amounts of data. Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that combines biology, statistics and computer science.

The term ‘bioinformatics’ was coined more than 40 years ago to describe research that uses information technology to better understand complex and intricate biological systems. It is an essential component of genetics research, with one of the most famous examples being the Human Genome Project.

Bioinformaticians develop and/or use the tools that are essential for data acquisition, storage and analysis. Alex Essebier, a PhD student at the University of Queensland, is developing computing tools to better understand developmental disorders and diseases. She was studying a dual degree in science and IT when she first took a course in bioinformatics, which she describes as “her perfect fit”.

Now in the second year of her PhD, Alex finds her research incredibly rewarding. “You can push the boundaries of human knowledge: there are so many different ways you can use your skills to improve people’s lives.”

After graduation, Alex will either continue her career in research or move into industry. The broad range of industries seeking bioinformaticians includes biotech, pharmaceutical and software companies: basically any industry that needs to compile and analyse biological and healthcare data.

Alex encourages students interested in a career in bioinformatics to make studying programming a priority, particularly in the fields of data structures, algorithms and machine learning (she’s currently programming with Java and Python languages). These skills apply to both research
and industry, and they are the perfect complement to a background in life sciences.

– Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

“You can push the boundaries of human knowledge: there are so many different ways you can use your skills to improve people’s lives.”

Eliza Brockwell

Author: Eliza Brockwell

Eliza is the Digital Producer for Careers with STEM. Eliza is passionate about creating content that encourages diversity of representation in STEM.

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