Average Salary:

$100,220 according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (salary for computer and information research scientists)

Training in Alabama:

University of Alabama – Birmingham, Masters and PhD programs in computer science (with a specialization in bioinformatics)

“Computational biology is an exciting interdisciplinary field of research that integrates concepts from statistics, mathematics, computer science, and physics to solve problems in biology and biomedical research.”
Career Interview:
Briefly describe your career as a computational biologist.
Computational biology is an exciting interdisciplinary field of research that integrates concepts from statistics, mathematics, computer science, and physics to solve problems in biology and biomedical research.

What type of environment do you work in.
I am an assistant professor of genetics at the UAB school of medicine, and I collaborate with clinical and biological researchers. It is an academic environment where teaching and research are both important missions.

Describe a typical workday.
On a typical day I might meet with a graduate student or computer programmer to discuss their current research projects. On most days I try to read some journal articles and think of new algorithms to understand biological systems from large genetic data sets. I often write computer code to implement these algorithms and work with students to develop these methods further. Some days are devoted to writing papers to summarize the results of our research.

What type of education and experience is required for a career as a computational biologist?
Bioinformatics and computational biology are relatively new fields but training programs now exist at universities that provide students with the diverse tool set required for a career in computational biology. Before such programs existed, scientists have come to computational biology with diverse backgrounds. The ideal background combines knowledge of molecular biology and quantitative, computational or statistical methods. Most important is the ability to think analytically and creatively. My field of physics provided little background in biology but rigorous training in numerical algorithms, problem solving, and the physical sciences. Other computational biologists started with a more biology background and picked up the necessary computational skills later.

What is your educational background?
My PhD is in theoretical physics, and as an undergraduate I was a dual major in physics and mathematics.

Why did you choose this career?
I find it very satisfying to identify simple principles that explain complex phenomena that we observe around us.The challenge of understanding complexity from simple mathematical models is what drew me to theoretical physics. After finishing my PhD I wanted to find new challenges and also be involved in improving human health. The ability of researchers to measure the variation in every gene of an individual was a perfect opportunity for me to attempt to find simple principles to describe the most complex thing we know of: biological systems.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of your job?
Most favorite is brainstorming new ideas with students and other scientists. Least favorite is getting a grant rejected.

Do you have any suggestions or words of wisdom for high school students interested in a career in your field?
Diversify, or learn new skills, because it gives you flexibility when you aren’t sure what career path to follow or when new technologies shake up your field.

Are there any other career opportunities in your field you think students should be aware of?
There are numerous opportunities in bioinformatics and computational biology, not just in medical research centers. For example, there is a lot of demand for computational biologists and bioinformaticists at pharmaceutical and other biotech companies.

Briefly describe your research interests.
I develop statistical models of genome-wide data sets to try to identify groups of genes that predict whether someone is more susceptible to a disease. I also develop mathematical models of biological systems.
Dr. Brett McKinney, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Genetics