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Reading the code of life

Bioinformatics is the new avenue for scores of biology students who have a keen interest in computers and software. The recent years has seen a shift in focus from traditional branches of biology like as Botany and Zoology to Genetics, Microbiology, Biotechnology and Molecular Biology. The result of the shift is the emergence of Bioinformatics as a subject. Bioinformatics is a combination of biology and computer science. It provides an effective means of handling, accessing, analysing and integrating biological data. It uses computer technology to handle and maintain large amounts of biological information.

Emergence
Ever since the first genetic sequence was deciphered in the 70s, Biology has been steadily evolving into an information science. Efforts made by The Human Genome Project and various other projects, have made Bioinformatics enter the industry about decade ago. Today, the Human Genome Project now aims to elucidate the sequences of all human genes by the year 2005. With this information scientists can understand how genes interact in health and disease.

Scope
Genetic information is the key to understanding genes and their functioning. Making sense of this gives us an insight into how we function in health and what goes wrong when we contract disease, and why some people are allergic to certain drugs while others are not.

Some other specific areas that fall within the scope of bioinformatics are sequence assembly, database design and maintenance, gene analysis, proteomics and pharmacogenomics.

Eligibility
For a career in Bioinformatics you need to have a strong background in two areas- biology and computer science. You need to have either a computer science graduate with an additional degree in biology or a biologist with a degree in computer science.

Chemists also play an important role especially in drug development. Studying the behaviour of complex molecules and developing tools to find out their capabilities would require a person with a background in chemistry.

If you want to pursue a Bioinformatics in India however, the course is offered only as an advanced post-graduate diploma, in select universities. Science graduates, postgraduates or PhDs with specialisation in Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Genetics, Microbiology, Structural Biology, Medicinal Chemistry, Neurosciences, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Veterinary Sciences, Food Sciences, Agricultural Sciences, Biotechnology, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Statistics are eligible to apply for this course. Computer scientists, IT professionals and software engineers with a background in specialised tools and database programmes are eligible too.

Soft-skills
As a Bioinformatician, you need to be able to work with scientists, to help them organize data. You also need to work with the people who are mining data in and see that it is stored in a retrievable fashion. Hence you need to be a team player with good interpersonal skills. Companies are looking for good problem solvers. People who can think creatively and look for better ways to do computations.

Fact file

Duties and responsibilities

  • They develop new computational tools exemplifying novel algorithms and analytic techniques
  • They apply existing tools to achieve new insights about molecular biology

Other skills
As for computer skills, you need to have a knowledge of the UNIX operating system, programming languages such as C, C++, Java, or Perl. You need to know how to work with relational databases such as Oracle and Sybase. Knowledge of CORBA, and CGI web scripting is also essential.


Institutes
There are several universities in India, which offer an advanced diploma in bioinformatics. Some of them are the University of Pune, Institute of Microbial Technology, Chandigarh, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Madurai Kamaraj University.

If you want to pursue higher studies in bioinformatics in the US, the Boston University, the University of Washington, Washington University (in St. Louis), the University of Pennsylvania, George Mason University, the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Houston, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, and Stanford University are the top universities that offer related courses.

Employers
Biotech industries and premier scientific institutions like Celera Genomics, CuraGen and Centre for
Cellular and Molecular Biology are a few well-known names

Apart from positions in the academic and pharmaceutical industry, the typical job roles are that of a systems analyst, software engineer, applications analyst, database designer or administrator, network designer or administrator, programmer, technical support, marketing, systems engineer, and others associated with the field of bioinformatics.

The field of bioinformatics has great future for students of biology having exceptional computational skills. This budding field is all set to flourish. It only requires the right talent to build, organise and manage the complex biological information systems.

ARCHANA JAYAKAR
archana.hyd@cxknetworks.com

Links to bioinformatics

http://www.bioinformatics-india.com : A meeting place for bioinformatics professionals from India. For jobs, surveys, careers and industry scoop, follow this link.

http://jobsearchtech.about.com/library/weekly/aa032398.htm : About.com's guide to jobs in Bioinformatics. To read about the history, what's hot and what's hotter, follow this link.

http://www.blonnet.com/canvas/20010224/24020140.htm: To know why Bioinformatics is being considered as 'the next revolution' after IT, follow this link.

http://www.bioinform.com/ : For the latest international news in Bioinformatics, follow this link.

http://bioinformatics.org/ : A non-profit organization that provides access to bioinformatics research projects.It also provides Open Source software for Bioinformatics by hosting its development, and keeping biological information freely available. To find out more about this community, follow this link

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