Amateur bioinformatics?

I’ve always been a bit of a space geek and as a kid, a keen amateur astronomer.  Reading this article – Wanted: Amateur stargazers to help solve mystery set me thinking about opportunities for amateurs in other areas of science.

Astronomy is notable as a science in which amateurs frequently make significant contributions.  As the article points out, the word “amateur” is in no way disparaging and merely means “without professional qualifications”.  These people are highly self-educated, well-informed, often well-connected and well-equipped.  A key point seems to be that professional astronomers tend to work on specific targets – they can’t just spend their nights staring at the sky – and there are not enough of them to watch the entire sky at all times.

Somewhat like bioinformatics I thought – substitute “databases” for “the sky”.  Lots of things lurking there waiting to be discovered and not enough time or manpower to look for it.  Plus, no need for expensive imaging equipment – all you need is a reasonably quick computer, an internet connection and of course, some idea of the interesting questions and the techniques to address them.

I wonder if there are any amateur bioinformaticians out there and if we can think up some imaginative schemes to attract them?

7 thoughts on “Amateur bioinformatics?

  1. neil

    There were some good comments for this post, which were lost when the blog migrated.

    Sandra said:

    Thanks for bringing this up!

    I’ve always liked this idea and have been working on developing educational materials to help amateur biologists for a number of years, see Geospiza Education. The only difference is that our amateur researchers are biology students, in college and high school.

    That said, there are quite a few conventions in academic research that make this kind of thing difficult to implement. First, there is nothing in academic research that’s comparable to the star-gazing events which are open to the public and relatively cheap to attend. A non-academic researcher must pay about $500 to register for a scientific conference and more for housing, etc. So, the social aspect is geared to exclude amateurs.

    Next, there isn’t a place for amateur researchers to publish. Even if they could get all the data they need, it’s unlikely that they could find a place to share what they’ve learned. I would really like to see some kind of wiki, with links from organizations like the NCBI, so that biology students could and other amateur biologys could have the opportunity to contribute in building a global biology knowledgebase. Even I have a hard time submitting corrections to official government web sites, see It must be true! I read it on the Internet.

    Kristofer said:

    Interesting idea. I have been much involved in a science youth organisation and I think that with the right tools avaliable and interesting science camps you could interest young “scientists” in finding things in the databases.

    Chris said:

    I’m not sure about Sandra’s comment re: publication for amateur doesn’t apply to astronomers, too. Afaik, amateur astronomers often make interesting observations which they then take to large facilities with the equipment to document them in more detail. They are fully included in the academic tail-end of this process, including publication, but can take advantage of the infrastructure available to their professional colleagues.

    I may be completely wrong here, but is it true that most amateur astronomers are observers, rather than modellers/theoreticians? If so, the analogy to biology breaks down somewhat: the prerequisite knowledge for an observational activity such as astronomy would be much less than the detailed technical knowledge usually required to ask most “interesting” bioinformatics questions.

    Even so, getting undergrads to dig into databases would provide a lot of valuable new analysis. I’m just not convinced the general public is in a position to do it.

  2. TheCoalescent

    The problem, of course, is that interested amateurs (myself included) have absolutely no idea what constitutes an interesting question.

    What would be really cool is if someone could put together a brief guide to what sort of questions bioinformaticists look at, how they find new questions, and (ideally) a list of a dozen or so off the top of their head. Then us bumbling newbies could start investigating them, which might even help the original poster recoup their efforts if anything interesting were found.

  3. neil

    Good points. Interested amateurs will need guidance, which will require interested professionals with education skills.

    By the way, comments don’t appear immediately here unless you have one previously approved comment, which is why yours took a while.

    By the way #2: this whole site and blog is set to disappear this week and will reappear here. I’ve not found a way to import old posts and comments so I’m afraid all previous posts and discussion will most likely vanish.

  4. Carly

    It’s interesting, I’m not a bioinformatician but I am familiar with lots of tools and methods and I’ve always wanted to start an introduction page for amateurs. I just started a wiki at http://amateurbioinformatics.pbwiki.com/ because I didn’t find anything on the internet that was similar. Please, if people want to add to it e-mail me (cereusb@don’tspam.gmail.com) and I can add you to the wiki. Alternatively, if you know a better place to host the content or suggestions for how to manage users or how to open it up that would be fantastic.

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