5 Common Courses in a Bioinformatics Degree Program

Common Courses in a Bioinformatics Degree ProgramAs a discipline that relies heavily on computer science and biology, bioinformatics courses tend to focus on these two academic pursuits.

But the coursework you can expect in a bioinformatics program goes much further than simply studying the basics of the human body and computers. Instead, bioinformatics degree programs prepare graduates to effectively collect and store data, analyze it, and report on data for a wide range of purposes.

Those purposes can be anything from explaining evolutionary relationships to mapping the genome to developing a better understanding of protein functions. This is just a short list, of course – the uses and purposes of bioinformatics are much broader.

Below is a partial list of common courses you might take in a bioinformatics degree program. For each course, a brief course description is included so you can get a better idea of the type of studies you will engage in for each course.

Statistics

StatisticsAs a student in a bioinformatics degree program, you will likely take several statistics classes.

An introductory statistics class allows you to learn the general principles and methods of statistical analysis. This entry-level course will explore both descriptive and inferential statistics, basic terminology like normal curve, confidence intervals, and statistical inference, and will also teach you how to test hypotheses.

Mid-level and advanced statistics courses prepare a bioinformatics professional to conduct complex analyses on large sets of data. Some of those additional statistics courses might include studies in logistic regression, survey design, and differential equations.

More advanced courses in statistics will focus on learning tools that are needed specifically for research in the bioinformatics field. This might include:

  • Bayesian statistics
  • Bayesian networks
  • Markov chains
  • Hidden Markov models

The purpose of focusing specifically on these and other types of bioinformatics statistics is to enable you to apply them to the analysis of biological data.

Bioinformatics Algorithms

Bioinformatics AlgorithmsAs the course title indicates, this class is all about bioinformatics algorithms.

In order to study DNA and RNA most effectively, you need to learn how to harness the power of algorithms. Doing so allows you to study things like genes, motifs, and sequence alignments, as well as predict what structures might look like.

By studying bioinformatics algorithms, you are equipped with an improved understanding of the assumptions that underlie algorithms as well as their limitations. What’s more, taking a course like this allows you to evaluate new algorithms that might be more informative.

Other topics in this class might include: 

  • Biological problems
  • Computer algorithms
  • Mathematical models
  • Heuristics
  • Computer programming
  • Probability

Ethics and Legal Studies

Another course that is commonly included in a bioinformatics degree program is ethics or legal issues.

These courses can explore a wide range of topics. For example, you’ll likely study confidentiality of private health information, the legal parameters of the collection of identifiable information, and the limits of using personal health and genetics data in research.

Additionally, this type of class dives deep into the laws that govern the use of private information and how they protect personally identifiable information. It may also include studies of encryption and other methods of protecting data.

Many ethics classes for bioinformatics majors include information on what is a socially acceptable use of bioinformatics as well. You can expect to study how health data and personal information in the public domain should be managed and protected, too.

Obviously, the primary reason for a course like this is to instill in you a desire to conduct yourself in an ethical manner. At the same time, it’s necessary that you learn about specific steps that you can take to ensure that the information you collect, store, analyze, and disseminate is collected, stored, and reported in a way that protects people’s personal information.

Genomics

GenomicsThe study of genomics revolves around the study of a genome or the complete DNA sequence of an organism. Additionally, genomics dives into the study of other features of living things, like metabolites and proteins.

In a genomics class, you will learn about how to collect information from these sources, how to study that information, and how to analyze it to a very finite level. For example, a genomics course might show you how to use powerful computing techniques to analyze huge strands of DNA, the purpose of which might be to find markers for things like the occurrence of specific diseases.

Likewise, genomics uses the power of computational biology and highly advanced DNA sequencing to explore more of the human genome in far greater detail than even just a few years ago. In fact, genomics hasn’t been around all that long since the technology needed to study the genome was only recently developed. 

Because of this, a genomics class might be one of the most exciting courses you’ll take in a bioinformatics program. Genomics has unlocked many mysteries about human development and can be used along with information about the environment’s effect on human development to gain a better understanding of why and how diseases and other ailments manifest in some people and not others. It is truly on the cutting edge of science!

Biomedical Informatics

Biomedical InformaticsA specialty course you often find in bioinformatics degree programs is biomedical informatics. 

This area of study focuses on using biomedical data to drive scientific exploration. Specifically, biomedical informatics seeks to use data to chart a course for improving our collective health.

In this course, you’ll learn about processes that assist you in creating, storing, retrieving, using, and analyzing data. These processes are done by using advanced computing methods that can speed up the process.

Likewise, biomedical informatics acts as a bridge between biological systems and research in the medical field. As noted earlier, the end goal is to help improve our health and healthcare systems as well.

Biology

A student working to earn a degree in bioinformatics will take multiple classes in the biological sciences.

The introductory classes usually include biology, physiology, and biochemistry. These courses typically include a classroom component and a separate laboratory component where you have the opportunity to conduct research and experiments that require you to put your classroom learning to the test.

Mid-level biology classes will typically include studies of genetics, ontology, evolution, and biotechnology. Additionally, the first bioinformatics course will usually come around at this time.

An introductory bioinformatics course will include topics about macromolecular structures and their data and how to represent, classify, and interpret the data from those structures. Advanced bioinformatics courses include topics about sequence-structure analysis, sequence modeling, and proteomes.

Computational Evolutionary Biology

This course takes the study of evolutionary biology – or the study of the history of life – and takes it a step further by utilizing computational methods as an investigative tool.

More specifically, you’ll learn how to use statistics, machine learning, and other advanced computational methods to dive into biological data and find meaning. It is the intersection of computer science, engineering, evolution, and biology.

Usually, courses like this discuss topics related to sequence alignment, heterogeneity, and dynamic programming. It’s common to explore continuous time Markov models, hidden Markov models, and uncertainties as well.

In terms of usefulness, this course will enable you to solve optimization programs, discover patterns in data, and model systems that can be continuously improved.

Computer Programming

According to the National Library of Medicine, computer programming courses are also common in a bioinformatics degree program.

Computer programming is important because it fosters the growth of skills that a bioinformatics scientist can use to analyze the data collected in a genomics experiment. It also allows scientists to compile information from thousands or even millions of subjects in order to identify trends or make predictions. Some computer programming classes that a person might take as part of a bioinformatics degree program include logic, SAS, STATA, Java, or JavaScript.

Physiological Science

Physiology is a branch of biology that focuses on learning about the mechanisms of living things. This occurs on many levels, from the molecular and cellular level to the functioning of the entire body, from physical systems to mental functioning.

Taking a course in physiology helps you understand how the body works. This is true of a body that works in times of good health and of bodies that aren’t working as well when challenged by injury or illness.

As a result, physiology studies help to identify how our bodies adapt to the environment, to external stimuli, and to sickness and disease. In turn, having an understanding of these processes can enable you to develop new or improved treatments for illnesses, identify improved guidelines for maintaining health, or even find potential cures for physiological ailments.

Since this is a research science, physiology courses have a classroom component and a lab component. The lab component is especially important as it gives you the opportunity to see physiological processes play out in real time.

Additional Coursework for Bioinformatics Degrees

The classes described above are not the only courses that a person earning a bioinformatics degree would need to take.

In addition to coursework that’s specific to bioinformatics, you’ll also need to complete general education requirements to fulfill the criteria to graduate.

For example, general education courses include things like:

  • Humanities and Arts
  • Language Arts
  • World Languages
  • Physical Education
  • Basic Science
  • Basic Math
  • Social Sciences and History

More specifically, you’ll likely need to take one or two classes in art, like painting, sculpture, or dance. Many degree programs also have a world languages requirement, so you should expect to take two or more semesters of a non-native language class.

General education requirements also include coursework in history and social sciences. For example, you will need to take one or two courses in United States history, American government, and likely several other social sciences courses, such as:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Microeconomics
  • Macroeconomics
  • Political Science
  • Anthropology
  • Philosophy

Outside of the math and statistics courses you need for your studies in bioinformatics, you’ll also need to take more basic courses first – like algebra, trigonometry, and perhaps calculus and other advanced math classes.

Basic science courses will also be part of the program. Before exploring the more advanced topics in bioinformatics courses, you’ll need a solid foundation of science, which you can get in courses such as Introduction to Biology, Anatomy, and Chemistry, to name a few options.

Many bioinformatics degree programs also have a technical writing requirement. So, in addition to taking common courses like English composition, expect to also take a course in technical writing that teaches you the skills needed to be a good writer that can disseminate highly technical information in a clear, thought-out manner.

Why Bioinformatics?

BioinformaticsThe field of bioinformatics is on the cutting-edge of development, so pursuing studies in this area will equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to keep advancing the field of research.

Additionally, a bioinformatics degree gives you the opportunity to be trained in using the latest technologies for interpreting enormous amounts of data. From genome sequencing to microarray profiling to next-generation sequencing techniques, you’ll find that you are proficient in modern tool usage for learning more about the human condition.

Bioinformatics is also a rapidly growing field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of computer and information research is predicted to grow by 22 percent through 2030. This represents much faster growth than the average for all jobs.

This can be a lucrative field in terms of salary as well. The BLS reports that the median yearly wage for computer and information research scientists in 2020 was $126,830. With additional educational training and work experience, you can move even higher on the pay scale – the top ten percent of earners in this field make in excess of $194,430 per year.

A degree in this field will prepare you for many different jobs in research, development, analysis, and evaluation. Likewise, it will set you up for a potentially long career. With the skills you learn in a bioinformatics degree program in high demand, you can expect that the compensation for your work will be far higher than the average, too. 

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