Bioinformatics – the Sexiest Field of the 21st Century
Andra Tolbus completed her MSc degree in Bioinformatics at University of Copenhagen in 2012. Before that, she studied Software Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Timisoara in Romania, where she acquired her degree in 2010. Now she is employed at Agnitio, a Danish company offering marketing software for pharmaceutical companies.
Name: Andra Tolbus
Current work place:
Lives in: Copenhagen
Why did you choose bioinformatics?
I was extremely curious about the emerging field of bioinformatics and the increasing volume of biological and experimental data that needed to be mined. The opportunity to get a better understanding of how the human body functions at the molecular level and how it responds to different external factors, by carrying your own analyses, was compelling.
Why did you choose University of Copenhagen
Romania became part of the EU in 2007 and with that, many European universities opened their doors for Romanian students. Good programmes with free or very competitive tuition fees were advertised more and more often at the education and career fairs. That, or solely the chance to study somewhere else, attracted many students – me included.
I discovered University of Copenhagen, the Bioinformatics MSc programme there and the excellent educational rankings. At that point I knew exactly where I wanted to go and was extremely happy when I got accepted for the session starting in 2010.
In short: What is the MSc programme all about?
Bioinformatics at University of Copenhagen is an interdisciplinary research based programme focused on methods for analysing the continuously increasing amounts of experimental data using mathematical and statistical methods.
What was your thesis about – and when did you finish?
During my degree, I was an intern at the non-coding RNA research group at a pharmaceutical company; in 2012, I also completed my MSc thesis entitled “Discovery of miR signatures and possible therapeutic targets for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases” there.
In brief, I compared the performance of different statistical methods on mining biological data reflecting the strength of a microRNA molecule in changing gene expression, with a focus on cardiovascular diseases.
Today you are working for Agnitio. What is your job?
Agnitio is a small Danish software company with less than 100 employees. The company has hubs in Europe, US, South America and Asia. We are offering closed loop marketing software and services for large pharmaceutical companies.
In closed loop marketing the marketing decisions are data driven. At Agnitio, our customers collect data in a marketing campaign – using our software tool –, we store and manage it, we then report and analyse it for the Marketing and Brand managers and other interested parties. The new digital marketing materials will be designed in a way that targets the audience better. The end point of using the collected data with our platform is to give the health care professionals a personalised experience when it comes to digital communication.
In my current position as Business Intelligence Specialist and Analytics Lead, I have been responsible for managing the reporting environment, data modelling and integration, specifying, implementing and delivering the analytics solutions to our clients. I am also managing a team of junior analysts – students from the IT University of Copenhagen, University of Copenhagen and Technical University of Denmark studying IT, mathematics, natural language processing and data mining. They all have a strong interest in “the sexiest field of the 21st century”: Data science.
Did the education give you the qualifications you need to meet the challenges in your job?
Surely. When I started my master’s, my knowledge in biology, which is crucial for this programme, was quite limited. Thus, besides the quantitative skills and applying analytical methods to real world problems, my education taught me how to learn new skills rapidly and transfer business and academic requirements into working solutions.
On the other hand, I think that there are many other things that you can only learn at the job and no education can make you fully prepared for that.
Any specific qualifications you miss or wish had been part of your education?
The Bioinformatics MSc degree is quite flexible. Besides the compulsory courses, the students can choose courses from other programmes at the Faculty of Science and individual research projects.
Personally, I wish we had more compulsory classes focused on applied science, experimental techniques and advanced methods for data analysis. At the same time, I am aware that it’s impossible to cover all the qualifications needed in such a short amount of time.
How is the job situation?
Most of the jobs can be found in academic environments or in the research and development departments at the Pharma and Biotech companies. If one would like to conduct their own research projects, a PhD is mandatory. Most of the jobs in the Nordic countries require a PhD, compared to countries like US, UK, Germany or Switzerland, where the bioinformatics job market is friendlier for individuals that do not opt for a post graduate degree.
I have a strong belief that this will change in the following years. There is an increasing amount of data generated from websites, smartphones, purchases etc. or from research projects from all over the world. The answers to the most interesting questions regarding how we function reside in combining data from different sources, for example genetics and lifestyle data.
Was it hard for you to get a job?
I think I have been extremely lucky with finding a job here. I worked as a Bioinformatician at Herlev Hospital and managed to get the job relatively easy three months after graduation.
For my current position, I have been recruited via LinkedIn, while I was still employed at the hospital. However, a simple search on jobbank.dk will show on average 20 available bioinformatics positions in the Copenhagen area, most of them PhD or PostDoc positions.
Which kind of jobs can one get?
A few of my colleagues are currently enrolled in PhD programmes, others are doing software development and/or data analysis or have managed to find bioinformatics positions at research centres and are considering doing a PhD after all.
The great thing with bioinformatics is that you acquire a variety of skills which in my opinion increase one’s chances of getting a job, compared to other study programmes.
Would you recommend your master's and the university to new students?
Definitely. It is a great place to study, nice libraries, good research programmes and interesting and open people.
Any tips or tricks for future students?
Tricks never really worked for me. However, work hard, no matter what you are studying, and try to get the most out of your studies. Be curious and learn to question everything you read. If you want to work while studying, try getting a job within your area of study or within an adjacent field that will make the combination of skills valuable on the job market
Additionally, I would say: If you do not have the skills, you should invest energy in courses on scientific communication (writing and speaking). Most of the exams from the science programmes at University of Copenhagen are written scientific reports with oral defence. It is crucial be able to communicate your results and implications clearly.
And for the international students: Don’t think that you’ll find accommodation as easy as you would in your home country and don’t count on the student accommodation options as the waiting lists are very long. Look for places ahead of time if possible.
When things are so new at many levels, one might feel overwhelmed. The overall experience however, will be totally worth it.
The interview with Andra was conducted in January 2015.