Asked and answered: Computational Biology Contribution?

So someone asked me this question today: “as a computational biologist,how can you be useful to the world?”. OK so they didn’t ask me, per se, they got to my blog by typing the question into a search engine and I saw this on my WordPress stats page (see bottom of this post). Which made me think- “I don’t know what page they were directed to- but I know I haven’t addressed that specific question before on my blog”. So here’s a quick answer, especially relevant since I’ve been talking with CS people about this at the ACM-BCB meeting the last few days.

As a computational biologist how can you be useful to the world?

  1. Choose your questions carefully. Make sure that the algorithm you’re developing, the software that you’re designing, the fundamental hypothesis that you’re researching is actually one that people (see collaborators, below) are interested in and see the value in. Identify the gaps in the biology that you can address. Don’t build new software for the sake of building new software- generally people (see collaborators) don’t care about a different way to do the same thing, even if it’s moderately better than the old way.
  2. Collaborate with biologists, clinicians, public health experts, etc. Go to the people who have the problems. What they can offer you is focus on important problems that will improve the impact of your research (you want NIH funding? You HAVE to have impact and probably collaborators). What you can give them is a solution to a problem that they are actually facing. Approach the relationship with care though since this is where the language barrier between fields can be very difficult (a forthcoming post from me in the near future on this). Make sure that you interact with these collaborators during the process- that way you don’t go off and do something completely different than what they had in their heads.
  3. In research be rigorous. The last thing that anyone in any discipline needs is a study that has not considered validation, generalizability, statistical significance, or having a gold-standard or reasonable facsimile thereof to compare to. Consider collaborating with a statistician to at least run your ideas by- they can be very helpful, or a senior computational biologist mentor.
  4. In software development be thoughtful. Consider robustness of your code- have you tested it extensively? How will average users (see collaborators, above) be able to get their data into it? How will average users be able to interpret the results of your methods? Put effort into working with those collaborators to define the user interface and user experience. They don’t (to a point) care about execution times as long as it finishes in a reasonable amount of time (have your software estimate time to completion and display it) and it gives good results. They do care if they can’t use it (or rather they completely don’t care and will stop working with you on the spot).
  5. Sometimes people don’t know what they need until they see it. This is a tip for at least 10th level computational biologists (to make a D&D analogy). This was a tenet of Steve Jobs of Apple and I believe it to be true. Sometimes, someone with passion and skill has to break new ground and do something that no one is asking them to do but that they will LOVE and won’t know how they lived without it. IT IS HIGHLY LIKELY THAT THIS IS NOT YOU. This is a pretty sure route to madness, wearing a tin hat, and spouting “you fools! you’ll never understand my GENIUS”- keep that in mind.
  6. For a computational biologist with some experience make sure that you pass it along. Attend conferences where there are likely to be younger faculty/staff members, students, and post-docs. Comment on their posters and engage. When possible suggest or make connections with collaborators (see above) for them. Question them closely on the four points above- just asking the questions may be an effective way of conveying importance. Organize sessions at these conferences. In your own institution be an accessible and engaged mentor. This has the most potential to increase your impact on the world. It’s true.

Next week: “pathogens found in confectionary” (OK- probably not going to get to that one, but interesting anyway)

People be searchin'

People be searchin’

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