bioinformatics, genomes, biology etc. "I don't mean to sound angry and cynical, but I am, so that's how it comes across"

The lonely bioinformatician revisited: clinical labs

Some time ago, I published a post called “A guide for the lonely bioinformatician” – this turned out to be one of my most popular posts, and has over 10,000 views to date.  Whilst I wrote that post to try and help those that find themselves as lone bioinformaticians in wet labs, that wasn’t initially my main motivation; at first, my main motivation had been panic – panic at the amount of bad science that lone bioinformaticians, without support, might produce.

Let me be clear, this isn’t the fault of the lone bioinformaticians themselves – any young scientist working in isolation will make mistakes – it is the fault of the PIs and heads of labs who employ said lone bioinformaticians with no cogent plan on how to support them.

You may get a sense of my motivation from the post itself:

I’ve seen more than one project where the results were almost 100% crap because a bioinformatician acted in isolation and didn’t ask for help

Then yesterday I had this conversation on Twitter:

Bioinformatics Unicorns

To summarise, we started with a clinical lab saying, quite rightly, that it is hard to recruit bioinformaticians; there were then many comments about how labs often want to employ people with rare and in-demand skills (so called “bioinformatics unicorns”) on poor salaries or boring projects, and that’s why it is difficult to recruit.

I agree with this, but that’s not the point I want to make here.

Many of you will be ahead of me at this point, but let me spell it out.  Lone bioinformaticians will make mistakes, often elementary mistakes, because they don’t have peer support or access to an expert in bioinformatics who can help them.  This matters less in research labs investigating e.g. the evolution of sea squirts, but clinical labs deal with data that can actually affect a patient’s health and/or treatment.

I am aware of a few lone bioinformaticians working in clinical labs.  I want to make this clear – this is a bad idea.  In fact, it’s a terrible idea.  Through no fault of their own, these guys will make mistakes.  Those mistakes may have dire consequences if the data are then used to inform a treatment plan or diagnosis.

So what’s the solution?  I can think of two:

  1. Pay more and employ more senior bioinformaticians who know what they’re doing, and build a team around those experienced bioinformaticians
  2. Collaborate with a bioinformatics group experienced in human genomics/genetics

To any lone bioinformaticians working in clinical labs, I would say this: find support; find help; make sure the things you are doing are the right things; have your pipelines reviewed by an independent external expert.  Don’t be alone.   This isn’t a personal attack on you – every young scientist makes mistakes, I certainly did – you need support and it’s important you get it.

To the clinical labs: I understand there are funding issues.  This isn’t a personal attack on you either.  But employing a lone (and inexperienced) bioinformatcian will almost certainly result in mistakes being made that would have been avoided by someone more experienced.  Please consider the options 1 and 2 above.



  1. There’s a grow-your-own approach being employed across the NHS with the STP in Clinical Bioinformatics (http://www.nhscareers.nhs.uk/explore-by-career/healthcare-science/careers-in-healthcare-science/careers-in-bioinformatics/bioinformatics-(genomics)/). Great if there is a senior bioinformatician to learn from, less so if the trainee is left to pick everything up themselves and make mistakes in isolation…

    Recruiting experienced bioinformaticians is perceived as difficult because of lower pay, not being able to work from home, short term contracts, fewer opportunities to publish etc.

  2. I would recommend that groups looking to employ a “lone” bioinformatician engage with their local bioinformatics support facility, if it exists (well, I would, wouldn’t I?). We now have bioinformaticians who would previously have been lonely working within the Unit – the academic group benefits from the devoted time of a fully engaged bioinformatician, who is supervised by experienced users. The unit benefits from additional context for their work, and input into a less transient and more in-depth project than we would often be involved with. (Hopefully) everyone wins!

    Often, a support facility is more likely to engage with this sort of project than an academic bioinformatics group (who won’t care if the work is nowhere near their research interests).

  3. Great post. A common mistake seems to be to assume that, because your lab is primarily “wet”, its not worth hiring an expensive, senior bioinformatician, and that the work can mostly be done by someone junior, possibly without a post graduate qualification. The irony is that the opposite is exactly true – the sole bioinformatician in a wetlab needs to be *more* experienced, *more* independent and is, therefore, *more* expensive, than someone being hired to join an experienced computational group, for exactly the reasons you describe (lack of support, interaction etc). This probably cuts both ways – dry labs looking to set up an experimental component might also think they don’t need very experienced lab folks to do the “simple” experiments they want to conduct – in fact, they need someone who can set up an experimental lab with almost no supervision, a challenging task.

  4. I completely agree with you!

  5. 100% agree.

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