I have been involved in a number of discussions recently about the proper role of bioinformatics in biomedical research. A few themes emerge that bother me, and upon which I feel compelled to comment. I will first take on this proposition:
“Bioinformaticians should do wet lab experiments.”
I disagree. Experiments are hard and require as much training and expertise as algorithm design and implementation. To suggest that they are getting “easy enough” for even bioinformaticians to perform misses the point. It is a very rare person who will perform at the highest levels of technical virtuosity and innovation in both algorithm development and experiment development. Why ask or expect a person who is great at computation, to add this credential? My fear is that they will become a mediocre experimentalist and (as a side effect) their algorithmic work will also suffer, thus creating a “jack of all trades, master of none” disappointment. Of course, bioinformatics algorithms and databases should often be tested by experiments, and this is why we have collaborations (or even subcontracts), but expecting young bioinformaticians to do it all is risking drowning out their real expertise with distractions. It is also very critical that bioinformaticians understand the experiments that they analyze in great detail–otherwise risking irrelevant methods that don’t make valid assumptions about the data. I could go on forever, but my advice to a talented young bioinformatician is to stay away from pipettes until your career is really secure. After that, you can do what you want, but recognize whether you are doing something because it is an ego trip or because it is the most effective way to get something done. Or perhaps you don’t want to share credit, and so want to bring everything in-house under your own control. That’s a whole ‘nother discussion…
As a footnote, I have recently been convinced (by some students) that attending biological group meetings is probably the best way to fully understand the data and how biologists think about it without having to actually do the experiments. That will require earning the trust of the biologists to let them sit with you and speak openly about their data and its shortcomings. But it is probably the single best way to understand a biological experiment.