Studying Bioinformatics as a Computer Scientist

Studying Bioinformatics as a Computer Scientist

When other people ask me what I study and I tell them bioinformatics, they are often very confused with the answer. Many people understand the notions of informatics and biology as research fields but have trouble in conceptualising the idea of bioinformatics as they do not fully comprehend what it entails. To be honest, I am sometimes not entirely sure myself as the field is quite broad. In this article, I aim to discuss what exactly I study, why I decided to join this field, and what are the obstacles to entry as a computer scientist.

My background, both educational and professional, is in computer science, broadly speaking. I finished a bachelor in data science and artificial intelligence in 2021 and had worked since as both a cloud engineer and DevOps engineer in the Netherlands and Poland. Since working on my thesis, whcih was related to the field of bioinformatics, I wanted to switch fields into bioinformatics as it sounded very interesting and it seemed to me that there were not many computer scientists choosing this path. It was the beginning of the era of large language models and generative AI, so many people decided to specialise and stay within the data science & AI field. I don’t think that those choices were bad, on the contrary, they were pretty good and made sense. However, that wasn’t the path for me.

I applied for the master’s programme in bioinformatics at Uppsala University in January 2023. I got my acceptance letter in March of the same year, found a place to stay in June, and moved in August. My studio had no wifi connection included and to get one, I needed a personal number. Getting this number requires a full registration of my residence with the tax office, which was estimated to take between 2 weeks and… however long they needed. Initially, I got a prepaid simcard with 100GB of data to use my phone as a hotspot for the time being. Luckily, my registration process from initial application to a Skatteverket ID-kort in my hand took only 3 weeks, so I managed to sort everything out by mid-October.

Since my arrival in Uppsala in August 2023, my time was filled with student activities. Firstly, the official Uppsala Univeristy arrival days, then the Master & Exchange Reception from Uppsala Union of Science and Engineering Students (UTN), and finally the reception organised by my department - Biology Education Centre. During these events, I met many international students from both my department and other departments within the Faculty of Science and Engineering. It was a great beginning for my new student journey.

My classes started in week 35, that is, on 28 August 2023. The first semester courses in the computer science entry (track) of the programme were Introduction to statistics for life sciences, Introduction to bioinformatics, and Introduction to molecular biology, genetics and evolution. The first two courses were shared with the biology entry students, while the third course was only for us, computer scientists. The biology entry students took different programming courses throughout the semester instead. This was great because each group could focus on the other aspect of the programme before joining forces in the second semester. What was a bit of an obstacle, however, were the shared courses. Since most of the students have studied biology before, and the field is quite dominated by people with a background in biology, it is challenging at times to learn as a computer science professional - the expert blind spot is reinforced through exposure to a mixed group of students in which the majority understand the language used in classes. Hence, it requires more effort to be up to speed as a computer scientist - but the outcomes are definitely worth it!

The number of different tools available for different kinds of tasks in bioinformatics is enormous. In the first four months of my degree, I have covered so many of them and I know that it is just the tip of the iceberg. Is it a bit scary to be entering a completely new field that is not a direct continuation of my bachelor’s studies or my work? Yes, absolutely. It is also very rewarding when you do understand the concepts and what you work on does work in practice. Since starting my degree, I have learnt a lot about molecular biology, genetics, and proteins.

What am I doing now? That is a very good question. My learning would have continued throughout the second semester of my degree but I decided to take a year-long break to work as the International Officer at UTN, our student union. My application for this position was accepted in October 2023. I am coming back to studying my master’s in January 2025, which is the start of the spring semester 2025. I will talk about it a bit more, at a later time. Till then!