Bioinformatics is a data science focused on biological data. The unique aspect of this discipline is the need for biological expertise and computational as well as statistical skills. That means that you need to have a great understanding of biological methods, experimental design and various data generation techniques as well as a good understanding of algorithmic methods, ways of data storage and retrieval as well as statistical methods.
When it comes to bioinformatics and data science in general, we can see a proliferation of online bioinformatics resources. These include Coursera and EdX courses as well as many others, like Udemy or online certificate programs (either free, affordable or very expensive) from a variety of universities. That is not surprising, when you deal with data and computers, what is the difference between online and offline learning? After all, having a computer screen in front of you is a requirement, so why not do it at home? The courses are typically split up between purely theoretical MOOCs and very practical ones like data camp or code academy.
For the theoretical courses in bioinformatics, it is clear that the MOOCs are fairly dry and they can only provide an overview, highlight concepts and applications, but are not practical. The most popular bioinformatics online courses focus on coding and technical skills: in a choice of languages like R or Python, or bash scripting. The limitation of these online courses is clear – you must know how to code, or be prepared to invest significant time in learning how to or even after you have learned, invest in hardware that will make it possible for you to run non trivial analysis you need for interesting projects. While it is essential to learn how to code, just coding by itself is not enough – an important part of learning bioinformatics is the focus on understanding the biological data and familiarity with biological challenges or questions.
So what is the best value you can get from online courses in bioinformatics – “technical” bioinformatics, online theoretical courses in bioinformatics or … BOTH? And if it is both, how can you show your progress and that you have learned something? What is the value of online bioinformatics training?
Certificates: Typical online bioinformatics courses offer a certificate of completion. They are typically not offering college credit, but are a sign that you dedicated a certain amount of time to learning the subject. Some might have value because the course was created by an expert. Some might have value because everyone knows it costs a lot of money… But the golden age of online certificates is fading. If you can sit through a few videos for under $100, isn’t it a cheap way to add something new to your resume or linked profile?
Projects: in reality, employers, labs or schools rarely just look for another piece of paper on your resume. In today’s world, a bioinformatician is expected to know how to do something in a project – be it retrieve and organize data, clean and “wrangle” it, run processing pipelines or analyze pipeline outputs to answer a biological question. A senior bioinformatician should know all of the above. A technician might specialize in the first two of those. A data scientist would focus on the analysis part… But a senior bioinformatician is someone that does all of these and beyond – after analyzing a specific dataset, they would also ask the next question and find a new dataset that can provide the next answer. And that is where projects are invaluable. If you can show that you have completed your own bioinformatics project, you are golden! That’s right – if you published, you are a scientist, but if you can demonstrate that you were able to select a dataset, plan your analysis, execute it and then explain the results, that means you really get it.
That’s why we believe projects are at the heart of bioinformatics. You will always have time to improve your coding skills and have a chance to make a visualization more polished. But you can’t just make a meaningless image, it must show something of value. You can’t just learn how to run someone else’s package if you do not understand what it does. Start with projects, learn how to ask questions and answer them with biological data. Explain what you found and what it means. Publish your projects on your profile on edu.t-bio.info. Become a BIOINFORMATICIAN!
Make sure you update your profile and understand how it works: Online Bioinformatics Education and Training: Getting the most out of your profile on T-BioInfo