Soul searching in bioinformatics
January 28, 2009 13 Comments
I empathize with bioinformatics. We were born around the same time, and our parents and grandparents – computer science, statistics, molecular biology, and mathematics, in the case of bioinformatics – had been around for a while. We enjoyed fairly idyllic childhoods, well-supported and full of promise. The world was our oyster; there was nothing we couldn’t do. And yet here we both are in a quarter-life crisis.
In my case, the problem is colored by what is known as “impostor syndrome,” a way of thinking which is apparently quite common in people who by most standards should not think that way. Half the time I believe that anything is possible – I am smart enough, skilled enough, strong enough, creative enough. The other half I am plagued by feelings of inadequacy and believe it is only a matter of time before I am “found out.”
Recently I’ve come to realize that bioinformatics suffers from its own case of impostor syndrome. It knows it has potential, it knows it has unique talents, and most of the time it pushes forward confidently, but deep down there is a fundamental insecurity about its place in the world. The insecurity isn’t completely unfounded; bioinformatics often has to defend itself to those who would judge it. “Tell us why bioinformatics should be its own field,” they say. Its critics are unconvinced of its ability to stand on its own, scornful of its promises, and quick to demonize its missteps.
Small wonder, then, that bioinformatics as a whole has developed a sort of complex. It’s not quite sure what it is yet or where it’s going, at least not to the satisfaction of others. My awareness of bioinformatics’ troubled psyche came to a head during a panel discussion at the Pacific Symposium on Bioncomputing, where the conversation quickly turned to the place of bioinformatics in the existing academic establishment. How do we get biologists to collaborate with us? What is the value of informatics outside of the biological findings? What can we do to increase people’s respect for bioinformatics?
The responses from the panel were interesting and varied. “Biology is about getting new data, and bioinformatics is about getting new science out of that data,” quoted one. The informatics is just as important as the biology, insisted another, because the methods can have broad applicability. We should see a promising method through to utility just as we would see promising new biology through, another agreed. Sure, informatics is often relegated to a supporting role in most published studies, but there are plenty of cases where the informatics made the paper possible. Panelists brought up Chip Lawrence’s seminal paper on Gibbs Sampling, published in Science, as an example of pure bioinformatics getting prominent notice.
But dost thou protest too much? An audience member pointedly summarized the mental zeitgeist thus:
At biology conferences, discussions and panels revolve around experimental protocols and the results, but at bioinformatics conferences, they tend to revolve around questions of how we can [define] our science better – why?
There was a heavy pause as the words reverberated through the room and the grains of truth settled. It was as if we were looking through a mirror and really seeing ourselves for the first time. Are we so unsure of ourselves as a field that we obsess over how to get our work done and how to get it appreciated by others? Do we still not know who we are?
The panel offered up some palliative comments. The problem is the lack of true bioinformatics departments, opined one, for we are not being judged by our peers but by others’ standards which may not be appropriate. Yes, continued another, we have to defend what we’re doing because not everyone values it. Yet another admonished: the boundaries are constantly being redefined, and if you want something “safe”, you’re in the wrong place. So be strong, O conflicted warrior, for bioinformatics is not for the faint of heart.
Perhaps the room was too large or the audience too drained; either way, there was too little time left to come to a satisfying conclusion to the Big Questions. So what’s in store for bioinformatics? Will it gain respect as a field, or slowly fade? Lincoln Stein, who 5 years ago predicted the demise of bioinformatics, now says it is alive and kicking, but it wasn’t a complete about face. What he claims is that the practice of bioinformatics will be alive and well, but bioinformatics as an area of study will be obsolete.
In some ways, I agree with Stein – it’s difficult to classify bioinformatics as an area of study if what you value is declarative knowledge, knowledge about facts. But bioinformatics is as much about the process as it is about the end discoveries, and the inclusion of method makes it a square peg in a world of round holes. As long as exclusively round holes persist, and its emphasis on method persists, then bioinformatics (and necessarily all emerging sister disciplines of informatics) will never find the right fit. How might the metaphysical journey end? Either the holes will change, or bioinformatics will change, or both. Which way is better is probably another one of those Big Questions.