Ok, so I suppose this requires some clarification. Last week, I attended PAGXXII in San Diego. Overall, it was a good experience. Given that I have no choice of going for the next two years, as a condition of my NSF fellowship, I’ll be looking forward to some sun next January. This being my first major conference as a postdoc, I was characteristically terrible at networking, probably talked too much at the bar each night, and spent too much time sitting in meetings rather than building scientific collaborations in the sunshine.

I went to lots of talks at PAG that focused on, well, what I would call “bean-counting.” You’ve been there, yearning for biological or evolutionary insight from the newly assembled or annotated genome, only to sit there though talk after talk of “The N50 was…” or “At 100X coverage we managed to assemble 14M contigs…” While these data are no doubt valuable to the scientific process, it does fall a little flat after awhile. Give me some description of a novel pathway, what makes your study system special, how can this be applied to a more broad class of organisms, something, dear god something, other than N50 and contig number and length distributions.

With that mini-rant out of the way, I had a chance encounter with a scientist from a well-known lab, studying some of the same trees as we do, who earlier in the week, saw me talking to another member of his lab. I was sitting at the bar, having a snack before the banquet, and he said something like, “I saw you talking to so-and-so, and you’re the ‘bioinformatician’ working with Andrew, right?” Just then, I died a little inside. In fact, the same thing happened at the NSF awardee meeting in the fall, when the program officer told a room full of other awardees (read: professional and admirable scientists) that I was a bioinformatician, and that my proposal was funded partly because I brought a different level of experience to the plant genomics community (the addressing of fundamental evolutionary questions and specific, testable hypotheses, notwithstanding, of course).

Here’s my perspective. Yes, I used to do lots of fancy IT. Yes, I know my way around several operating systems and know a few programming languages. Yes, I have a masters in bioinformatics in addition to a Ph.D. Yes, I write code every day. Yes, I write this code (usually) to analyze biological data. So, why am I not a bioinformatician, then? Why don’t I just shut up and stop being such an elitist? As it turns out, the former question is much easier to address than the latter (snicker). Let me say first, before anyone gets their feelings hurt, that there is nothing wrong with being a bioinformatician.

The venerable Wikipedia defines bioinformatics as: “an interdisciplinary scientific field that develops methods for storing, retrieving, organizing and analyzing biological data.” You can read the wiki, if you desire, but the short of it is (at least for me) is that I am interested in the science of the system, not simply the techniques (developed either by me or someone else) used in the analysis process. I want to understand the biology, and that happens to come along, these days, with the (un)fortunate burden of huge data sets.

To me, a bioinformatician is someone who works in conjunction with a PI (I do include myself in this category) and provides a service (sometimes even a valuable one), where that service is needed. Bioinformaticians tend to prioritize data generation and methodology execution higher than biological insight. They are the “Methods” section rather than the “Discussion” section. It’s also been my (probably extremely rare and biased) experience here at VCU that the bioinformaticians with whom I have had the pleasure to interact, either (or in some combination):

  1. Don’t know what they’re doing (which is bad)
  2. Think they know what they’re doing (which is worse)
  3. Provide inadequate customer service (in a service-oriented role)
  4. Don’t play well with others (read: huge ego)
  5. Overstay their welcome and/or overestimate their contributions

So, if I’m not a bioinformatician, then what (other than elitist, jerk, etc.)? What do I tell my in-laws, friends, relatives, or the occasional stranger at a bar? Usually, I say that I am a scientist, further probing leads me into evolutionary biologist (where my main passions lie) or computational biologist (for practicality). If I really don’t care to talk at that moment, I’ll even fall back on postdoc, but people either don’t know what that is, or think it has something to do with a Ph.D., but upon further inspection of my person, let’s face it, doesn’t often jive with stretched ears and ample tattoos.

So, yeah, to sum it up: I neither have said nor ever will say that I am bioinformatician (and you shouldn’t, either).

—Chris