What is Computational Biology?

What is Computational Biology

CSDH Staff
March 2023

Computational biology is a broad subject. It is a science that uses computers and databases, along with math and statistics, to analyze large amounts of information. Scientists also use it to collect, organize, and store information from many different sources. But where does the information come from?

The information these specialized biologists collect comes from:

  • Clinical trials
  • Experimental data
  • Genetic and molecular research studies
  • Patient statistics
  • Scientific journals
  • Tissue specimens

Computational biologists collect biological data. They use biology and computer science in many ways. This article discusses the importance of computer in biological science. We answer questions like what is computational biology and how does it benefit the world? We also look at the education you need to work as a computational biologist.

Read on for more info on everything from bio computer science group courses to biology computer science jobs and salaries.

Computational Biology Overview

Computational biology is synonymous with bioinformatics. It is an intersection of big data, biology, and computers. But its roots are in applied mathematics, chemistry, and genetics.

When you study the interdisciplinary science of computational biology, you pick up a wide range of biological knowledge. You study many different topics in modern biology. Your courses cover:

  • Biochemistry
  • Biophysics
  • Cell biology
  • Evolutionary biology
  • Genetics

But more than science, there is the use of computer in biology. Some refer to it as a bio computer science group study because it creates a blend of biology computer science.

The application of computational biology leverages quantitative tools such as machine learning. It also uses different computational methods and statistical methods. When you study computational biology, plan on learning algorithm design, frequency statistics, and statistical physics.

What Does a Computational Biologist Do?

Also known as a bioinformatics scientist, a computational biologist has knowledge in biology and computer science. They use both disciplines to analyze and model data. Their work takes place in research facilities, such as private companies or research institutions.

Since the job includes biological study, the specialized bio computer work has moved into genetics and pharmaceuticals. A computational biologist might work in biotech or at a pharmaceutical company.

The tasks a computational biologist does varies by company and position. But the nature of their work calls for a deep understanding of mathematical biology and data analysis. They use algorithms and equations to solve problems and carry out their work. They follow certain steps to get the results they need, no matter what they’re research calls for. Here are some of the steps they follow:

  • Develop a data analysis plan. Come up with data points and decide which algorithms and software to use to get the best results.
  • Examine approaches used by other researchers.
  • Create computer programming or tools to use for analyzing data.
  • Implement testing and oversee research, often by using a control group.
  • Create data structures or models to help interpret data so others can understand it and use it for future studies.
  • Communicate results to team and compare data.
  • Make changes to research protocol as needed.

In computational biology, the job can vary by the biological systems one researches. Whether you work with DNA sequences in the human brain or chemical properties in metabolic networks, the job is research-heavy and offers many benefits.

An image of a computational biologist for our FAQ on What is Computational Biology

Benefits of Computational Biology

Some argue that all biology is computational biology. Why? Because computational biology brings order to systems. It compartmentalizes our understanding of life. Computational biology turns large biological systems into small biological systems, making concepts testable. It also provides a reference map for future research.

Computational biology is a growing field. You see it as an integral part of the future of biology and medicine. Major companies have invested in computational biology research, pouring millions into studies. These major players include:

  • Google
  • Life Technologies
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Microsoft
  • Roche and Merck

The use of computer in biological science helps companies improve research methods and growth.

Pharmaceutical and biotech industries rely heavily on biological data and computational methods. They conduct research and analyze studies. They need computational biologists to do the work.

But computational biologists also work in other fields of science. We use computer in biology and medicine. For instance, they work on the human genome project and in genetics. They study DNA sequences and provide protein analysis for private industry corporations. They work in about every scientific field.

Why study computational biology?

Like the discipline, there are many benefits to studying the biology computer science group. Numbers show high job prospects and employment growth over the next decade. STEM jobs, in general, will experience growth in the next several years.

But along with job stability is good earnings. According to Salary.com, the average base earnings for a computational biologist is about $100,000/year. We discuss the job outlook and pay in more detail below.

How to Become a Computational Biologist

Becoming a computational biologist takes specialized education and training. You must understand both computers and the natural sciences. There are certain degrees that are better than others. There are also specializations you can get that will help you improve your knowledge of systems biology and mathematical models. Here we discuss which degrees and specializations are good for an aspiring computational biologist.

Computational Biology Degrees

The first step toward becoming a computational biologist is to get a bachelor’s degree. There are different areas you can study but most cover biological systems. From there, think about the next step, which is getting an advanced degree in the field.

Bachelor’s Degrees

You need a bachelor’s degree if you want to work in computational biology. Some accredited colleges and universities offer bioinformatics or computational biology majors. For those that don’t, look for majors like:

  • Biochemistry
  • Biological systems
  • Ecological systems
  • Machine learning
  • Mathematics
  • Statistics

Any major where you study biological systems through mathematical modeling can help prepare you for this career. To make sure you’re competitive for graduate school, keep your grades up. Take specialized classes that you may choose to specialize in or research later in your academic career.

Master’s Degrees

This is where the fun begins. Once you’ve gotten the basics out of the way, you can dig into your interests. A graduate degree in computational biology or a closely related subject helps get you ready for your research career.

If you’re not earning your degree in computational biology, look for another biological systems discipline. Options can include:

  • Automated science
  • Bioinformatics
  • Quantitative genetics
  • Systems biology

Any subject that gives you a strong research and quantitative focus in the natural sciences and computers can help leverage your career in computational biology. But you’ll want to have plenty of experimental data experience. You’ll also want as much data analysis as you do knowledge in systems biology.

Your master’s degree should include a research thesis because the end result is further schooling. Most graduates go on to earn a PhD in a related field. So, to make yourself competitive, get as much research experience as you can.

Doctorate Degrees

The next step in your computational biology education path is to earn a doctorate. This step takes 4-6 years and involves extensive lab work and independent research.

The first few years involve coursework and lab rotations. Students complete an exam to test their knowledge. If they pass, they become PhD candidates. The remaining time spent in the program involves the completion of a dissertation or thesis. Some schools demand an independent project instead of a dissertation. Near the end of the program, PhD candidates present their dissertation to faculty and experts.

An image of a computational biologist for our FAQ on What is Computational Biology

Computational Biology Specializations

There are many fields within computational biology that you can study or choose to work. Many degree programs offer specializations or concentrations. They allow students to focus on an area of interest that meets their career goals. Here are some of the most common specializations in computational biology.

  • Automated Science

This specialization combines AI with machine learning and computational processing to do research with little human activity.

  • Biomathematics

Some colleges and programs refer to this specialization as mathematical biology. It uses math to research and treat diseases and other natural processes.

  • Computational Medicine

This specialization uses computer modeling and patient data to create models that can detect and diagnose diseases. Models can also help treat them.

  • Gene Expression Analysis

You study how genes form from their coding genes. Some programs emphasize the human genome and genomic data.

  • Machine Learning

This specialization offers a mastery of machine learning skills in data science. You can apply these skills to different mathematical modeling approaches and biological data.

Computational Biologist Skills

You need certain skills to work as a computational biologist. These skills include:

Computer Skills

Since computational biology combines natural sciences with computers, you need to have excellent computer skills. The job involves managing large computer systems that help you process data. Computer skills include:

  • Computer programming: Computational biologists use different programming languages, such as C++ and Python.
  • Data analysis: You need certain skills to manage large data sets. You also need to come up with models to represent them.
  • Problem-solving: You need to know how to troubleshoot as a computational biologist. Figure out why a problem occurs and fix it.

Professional Skills

As a computational biologist, you will bring your academic experience into the workplace. You need to have strong professional skills.

  • Communication: Computational biologists have excellent communication skills. They share results with team members, write reports, and present findings.
  • Decision-making: Your ability to make decisions can produce the best results.
  • Interpretation and reasoning: When you can reason, you can draw conclusions. You can interpret findings and produce sound results.
  • Networking: The field changes, constantly. Computational biologists must stay on top of new techniques and innovations. A computational biologist will share findings and research, network, and form relationships to better the field.

Research Skills

Your academic and research skills learned in school are important on the job. They provide a foundation for your career as a computational biologist. These skills include:

  • Biochemistry understanding: Knowing biological systems and processes makes you a better computational biologist. The job requires research and protein analysis. Having biochemistry knowledge helps.
  • Math knowledge: A thorough understanding of mathematics is critical for a computational biologist career. It will help you analyze data sets and interpret results.
  • Research: When you have strong research skills you can derive strong results. From working with data points to research on the human genome, you need skills that will guide and serve your findings.

An image of a computational biologist for our FAQ on What is Computational Biology

Computational Biologist Job Outlook

Statistics show that computational biology is a good field for college students. And now is a good time to pursue a career as a computational biologist.

According to the National Library of Medicine, experts believe computational biology will become part of routine health care in the future. Because computational biology applications aren’t limited to drug and research discoveries, they are versatile. We can use them in different ways. In fact, they are already being used in diagnostics like:

  • Applications
  • Home health monitoring
  • Implantable devices

Big companies like Apple and Google have dumped millions of dollars into computational biology research. They want personal devices, such as smart phones and watches, to collect health data. Companies can then use data for further studies.

It is this research that has increased awareness in computational biology. And with awareness comes an increase in jobs. Over the next 10 years, we should see an increase in demand for computational biologist jobs. Many openings at large biotech firms, such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Pharmaceutical companies will also seek qualified computational biologists.

These companies will look for qualified people with skills and experience in:

  • Biological knowledge
  • Computational methods
  • Computational tools
  • Experimental data
  • Genomic data (Human Genome Project)
  • Machine learning
  • Population genetics
  • Statistical methods

Computational Biologist Salary

The average pay for a computational biologist in the United States is $99,104/year, according to PayScale. The highest pay reported for this occupation is $134,000/year.

There are factors that impact earnings. These include geographic location and years of experience. But for the most part, computational biologists earn six figures and have PhDs.

If you want to increase your earnings as a computational biologist, you can. Earning a specialization in an area of interest can increase your earnings potential. In-demand specializations include data analysis, R, and Python. Others include machine learning and mathematical statistics. If you can show a potential employer that you have expertise in an area of interest, they may be willing to pay top dollar.

You can also increase your earnings by gaining more research experience. In school, on the job, and independent research can help you leverage your career and increase your salary.

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