So you want to be a computational biologist?

Nice review that I found in Nature: http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v31/n11/full/nbt.2740.html

A very important point:

You’re a scientist, not a programmer

The perfect is the enemy of the good. Remember you are a scientist and the quality of your research is what is important, not how pretty your source code looks. Perfectly written, extensively documented, elegant code that gets the answer wrong is not as useful as a basic script that gets it right. Having said that, once you’re sure your core algorithm works, spend time making it elegant and documenting how to use it. Use your biological knowledge as much as possible—that’s what makes you a computational biologist.

and:

Be suspicious and trust nobody

The following experiment is often performed during statistics training. First, a large matrix of random numbers is created and each column is designated as ‘case’ or ‘control’. A statistical test is then applied to each row to test for significant differences between the case data and the control data. You should not be surprised to learn that hundreds of rows come back with P values indicating statistical significance. Biological datasets, such as those generated by genomics experiments are just like this, large and full of noise. Your data analysis will produce both false positives and false negatives; and there may be systematic bias in the data, introduced either in the experiment or during the analysis.

“Knowledge of biology is vital in the interpretation of computational results.”

There is a temptation, even among biologists trained in statistical techniques, to throw caution to the wind when particular software or pipelines produce an interesting result. Instead, treat results with great suspicion, and carry out further tests to determine whether the results can be explained by experimental error or bias. If multiple approaches agree, then your confidence in those answers increases. But for many findings, validation and further work in the laboratory may be necessary. Knowledge of biology is vital in the interpretation of computational results. Setting traps, or tests, as mentioned above, is only part of this. Those tests are meant to ensure that your software or pipeline is working as you expect it to work; it doesn’t necessarily mean that the answers produced are correct.

Have fun ;)

One thought on “So you want to be a computational biologist?

  1. I really like this post!
    As an aspiring computational biologist, this has given me some good insight on what I should watch out for!

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