Katie Barnes graduated from Edinburgh with a PhD in Population in Health Sciences (specialising in quantitative genetics) in 2019 and has since found her niche working in Bioinformatics. In this blog, Katie shares her career journey to date, from completing an undergraduate degree in Biology, and Masters in Immunology, propelling her towards a PhD and post PhD employment with Fios Genomics, a bioinformatics service provider.
Arriving at the end of a degree, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, you may ask yourself – do I want a career in academia or industry? Many people will choose the academic route with the aim of pursuing the most fulfilling career path, surrounded by cutting-edge research that will consistently advance their knowledge and analysis skillsets. However, many of these traditional benefits of an academic career can equally be found in industry, particularly in the field of bioinformatics.
How it started…
Following on from a PhD at the University of Edinburgh in Public Health (where I specialised in quantitative genetics), I began employment as a bioinformatician at Fios Genomics. Fios Genomics is a bioinformatics service provider, working with professionals in industry and academia to understand large-scale biological datasets; this can include anything from pharmaceutical drug trials to animal breeding experiments.
Being proactive and developing skills
My background before joining Fios Genomics was not in bioinformatics. I had an undergraduate degree in biology and a wet lab Masters in immunology. However, I did have experience in coding in R, which I started during my degree and continued throughout my PhD. A good understanding of a coding language such as R or Python is really valuable when starting a career in bioinformatics. Fortunately, this has become easier to implement early on at university by using programs such as R to analyse data, as opposed to a visual statistical software like SPSS.
Since starting at the company over two years ago, I have learnt an incredible amount about biological data and statistical analysis methods that are at the forefront of the scientific field. One of the most important skillsets in this role is the ability to research and interpret unfamiliar information. It’s a given that you will not have experience of analysing every data type that you are presented with or performing every statistical analysis that is requested of you. Genetic data, which I had the most experience in working with following my PhD, makes up a very small proportion of the highly varied data types that we receive from clients. On a monthly basis I might work with RNA-Sequencing, single cell, proteomics or methylation data… just to name a few!
The variety is great – and so are the opportunities!
No day is ever the same. Although I spend a lot of time writing code and performing analyses, there are many other aspects of my role which are not computational. One day I may be assigned to a new project, where I put together an analysis plan to best understand the data. I might speak to a potential client to discuss their research and suggest different statistical methods that can really get to the bottom of what is going on in their experiment. There are opportunities to participate and speak at conferences around the world, or to attend training courses. Professional development is encouraged, and a certain proportion of my week is dedicated to learning new skills that can help improve my knowledge as a scientist and bioinformatician.
One of the best bits? The collaboration…
There are obvious practical benefits of being a bioinformatician: no evening or weekend work, having the option to work from home, and a competitive, stable salary with company benefits (a survey by The Scientist found industry scientists earned 30% more than their academic counterparts). However, I have found the real benefits come from working in a highly collaborative environment with a team of talented, like-minded scientists. I have a sense of immediate impact of my work, which is often focused on the development of potentially lifesaving treatments.
Bioinformatics is a rewarding career – I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.
This blog post forms part of a series we will be publishing throughout June to highlight the varied career paths of PhD graduates. Use the PhD Horizons tag to search and find the blogs and other posts related to the event. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we’ve enjoyed curating them.
Check out our website for an overview of what’s happening during PhD Horizons.
If you would like to find out more about the skills gaps in this industry, view the latest report published by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). The report highlights the need for more digital talent: “The ‘top priority’ areas to fill gaps identified by pharmaceutical companies included informatics, computational, mathematical, and statistical skills…”