Careers in Bioinformatics and Biotechnology

June is “Information Technology” month at University of Maryland University College’s (UMUC) Office of Career Services. Throughout the month, we are highlighting the University’s information technology experts to examine career and industry trends, and provide students and alumni a chance to learn about different career paths within this industry.

Jim Coker headshotRecently, UMUC Bioinformatics and Biotechnology Regulatory Affairs Program Chair Dr. James Coker answered questions about career trends and opportunities in the bioinformatics and biotechnology fields. Dr. Coker earned his Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University where his dissertation focused on investigating the structure/function relationships in cold-active enzymes from Antarctica. Before joining UMUC, he was a faculty member at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where he ran a basic research laboratory focusing on stress responses and transcriptomic changes in microorganisms that grow in extreme environments. Dr. Coker has been a teacher for 20 years and his research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals and cited over 500 times.

 Q. Bioinformatics combines computer science, statistics, mathematics, and engineering to analyze and interpret biological data. How are organizations today using this data? What are some advances in bioinformatics and biotechnology that we can expect to see used in the future?

A. This data can best be thought of in the context of ‘big data’. One biological experiment using a modern piece of equipment can easily generate hundreds of thousands to millions of data points.  Since all biological experiments must be repeated many times before the results can be trusted, you can see how the data really adds up quickly.  Organizations are using this wealth of data in a myriad of ways. 

Two of the best examples of this can be seen in the responses to President Obama’s National Cancer Moonshot Initiative (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/01/fact-sheet-investing-national-cancer-moonshot) and his Precision Medicine Initiative (https://www.whitehouse.gov/precision-medicine).  One of the ideas that tie both initiatives together is developing new medical therapies (drugs, biologics, and devices) that target specific mutations in a patient’s DNA.  In order for this to work, someone needs to identify the mutations present and then determine which ones are responsible for specific cancers or diseases – that ‘someone’ is the bioinformatician.  As a result, ‘next generation DNA sequencers’ will play a big role in the future of biotechnology and health.  In fact, I would not be surprised if sequencing the genome of a cancer patient’s tumor becomes a routine part of his/her course of treatment within the next 5-10 years.  Beyond that it is important to understand that Biotechnology touches almost every aspect of our lives, for example: lactose-free milk, bioinsecticides, biofuels, and ‘stone washed’ jeans.  With that in mind the future of bioinformatics and biotechnology is almost limitless. 

Q. What career paths could one pursue working in bioinformatics and biotechnology?

A. I think the four tracks (Bioinformatics, Biosecurity/Biodefense, Biotechnology Management and Biotechnology Regulatory Affairs) we currently have in the M.S. in Biotechnology are a pretty good indication of the paths one can pursue in the industry at large. If one desires a more hands on role relating to technology then the Bioinformatics specialization is a great one for them. If a student’s desires lean more toward policy development/implementation then the Biosecurity/Biodefense and Biotechnology Regulatory Affairs specializations are great for them.  Finally, if management has a strong appeal for someone then the Biotechnology Management is perfect for him/her.

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Q. What inspired you to pursue a career path in bioinformatics and biotechnology? What education path did you pursue? How did you begin your career?

A. I think that I’m a pretty naturally curious person who always wants to know how something works. I think it was this trait that led me to Science and then to Bioinformatics and Biotech.  Whenever people ask me about my career path I usually smile or chuckle because it is definitely not what most people see as ‘typical’ or traditional. It took me six years to finish my undergraduate education, mostly because I was working for five and half of those years.  During that time I was a student at one Junior College and three different Universities.  Part of this was due to moving but part was also me looking for an affordable option for my education.

However, during all of this I never stopped pursuing my goal.  After I finally finished my undergraduate career, I knew that I needed to learn more so I immediately applied to Grad Schools and felt lucky that one accepted me (the multiple C’s on my transcripts definitely had me worried).  There were several ‘life events’ that slowed me down in Grad School, which also took six years to complete.  However, my drive kept me going and kept me focused on completing what I started. 

After Grad School my career really started with working at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.  This is where I really got interested in Bioinformatics and Biotechnology.  The positive potential Biotechnology has to transform peoples’ lives and society at large really appeals to me.  As an example, when I was in High School I really wanted to be a medical doctor so I could help people.  However, my perspective now is if I became an M.D. the number of people I could have positively affected would have been not much bigger than the number of my patients.  However, as a part of the Biotechnology field there is the potential to positively affect so many more people whether it be through development of new medical therapies, sustainable biofuels, or policies for the ethical use science just to name a few.

Q. How have some of your career experiences shaped you into the professional you are today?

A. I would be lying if I said there were career experiences that didn’t shape me. So, my answer here could be really long.  If I could answer this from a broader perspective I would say that what shaped me the most was an attitude of saying yes to new tasks and responsibilities at the beginning of my career.  I think this approach works well for the employer because what they really want above all else are people who are not afraid to work and are willing to do everything they can to help their team and help the company.  However, I also think this approach works well for the individual as it keeps you open to everything, which is the best way to learn new skills and gain more knowledge/understanding – all of which is very important when you are first starting out.

Q. What personality and character traits must bioinformatics and biotechnology professionals possess?

A. I think an innate curiosity and desire to know how things work is helpful as is an attention to detail. Many people think you have to be ‘smart’ and I don’t necessarily disagree. However, being ‘smart’ only gets you so far.  This is why I think that perseverance is far more important.  Biotechnology is not a field where things are going to work the first, second, or third time.  Sometimes it takes years to see the real fruits of your labor.  So patience and perseverance are essential and often more important than pure ‘smarts’. 

Q. What advice would you give UMUC students entering bioinformatics and biotechnology?

A. Experience counts so take any and all opportunities you get, even if it is only tangentially related. Each student needs to keep in mind that he/she is one of many thousands of students getting the exact same degree during any semester from across the world. The degree, although a laudable achievement, is not what is going to distinguish you from other potential job applicants or what your potential employer wants to hear you talk about at a job interview.  What that hiring manager wants to hear is what you have done – what projects you have worked on and completed and what skills you have that fit with what the company does.  This is exactly why we have structured the Capstone course in a fashion where students work on real projects sponsored by a company and led by someone at the same organization.  So, if the student is a career-changer he/she will have at least one project and a set of skills to mention at an interview and a person in the field can add one more item to his/her growing list of experience.

Q. For UMUC students and alumni already working in bioinformatics and biotechnology, what advice would you give them on how to keep advancing within the industry?

A. One of the reasons I really like the broad field of Biotechnology is that it is really driven by the pursuit of new knowledge. So, if you are in the field and don’t have a Masters’ degree I recommend getting one as advancement beyond a certain level often depends on having a graduate level degree. If a person already has a graduate degree then I recommend that he/she look for new projects or areas within their company to become a part of to expand his/her horizons.  The more people you interact with the more you can potentially learn.

Q. Any final thoughts or recommendations you want to share with bioinformatics and biotechnology UMUC students and alumni?

A. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. They are a virtue when you are a student but also essential when you are in the workplace as well. It is difficult to learn anything if you don’t ask questions.

Also, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to people and talk.  Humans are social beings by nature. A lot more gets accomplished and you will get a lot further in life if you talk and interact with as many groups and types of people as possible.  

For more information on career opportunities and resources available to UMUC students and alumni from the Office of Career Services, click here.

Jennifer Tomasovic is the director, Communications for Career Services and Alumni Relations at University of Maryland University College. She has spent her 15 year career crafting communications strategies and messages using both marketing and public relations tactics enhancing the brand and reputation for both the clients and organizations she has represented.