Computing Has Changed Biology—Biology Education Must Catch Up

When I opinionated on and on about All Biology being Computational Biology, I was aware that these were not really novel ideas. After all Hallam Stevens had written a whole book about it and my friends inside my intellectual bubble kept on asking why I had spent so much time on writing up something so glaringly obvious.

But what I had missed is that some of my points had already been made very clearly in an excellent piece by Pavel Pevzner and Ron Shamir in Science in 2009 titled “Computing Has Changed Biology—Biology Education Must Catch Up“.

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Creativity, Science

The Art of Science

Work by Daniel Kohn
Work by Daniel Kohn

I am not necessarily very impressed by attempts to sell me an ugly chimera of Art and Science, just look at what I thought of David Edward’s badly edited The Lab.

But I liked the cover of Hallam Stevens’ Life Out Of Sequence, the book I wrote about last week. The bookcover sports a painting by the Broad Institute’s artist-in-residence Daniel Kohn. The green one on top of this post is also by him.

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Books, Science

Life out of sequence – Hallam Stevens’ data-driven history of bioinformatics


How do people like you ever get last-author papers?” The person who asked me this question in 2008 during the interview for my current job was (and still is) a well-known stem cell biologist with decades of experience in science. But she still didn’t really know what to think of ‘people like me‘: bioinformaticians and computational biologists. Aren’t bioinformaticians just service providers? Handy to have, but without any real scientific vision and contribution? She clearly worried about my ability to do independent research.

And she wasn’t alone. A couple of years later I interviewed for an EMBO fellowship, which I didn’t get because the panel –mostly cell biologists, no one computational or from genomics or medicine– thought my group was a “mathematical service unit” and my research was “overly driven by my collaborators”. I’m still not sure what a ‘mathematical service unit’ could be (proofing theorems on demand maybe?) but their comments showed me how far removed their research practice was from my own.

Even though bioinformatics is by now an established field these personal experiences show that ‘old school’ biologists, who form the scientific establishment and direct mainstream research, are still very uncomfortable with ‘people like me’ who were trained in other disciplines, pursue biological questions different from their own, and use approaches not covered in classical biological training.

Life Out Of Sequence Cover

Hallam Steven’s book Life Out Of Sequence, A Data-Driven History of Bioinformatics starts with the tension between old and new biology that ‘people like me’ experience every day and describes the way biology has been and is being changed by computational methods.

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