How cartoonist shifted to bioinformatics on his way to doctorate in plant genetics


Ed Himelblau was a cartoonist before he learnt to write code. Now, the geneticist hopes his drawings will help others who embrace bioinformatics later in their careers. Here is his story:

My career began in the early 1990s, when computers were just a convenience in the biological sciences. Now, they’re an indispensable tool of discovery. The final year of my PhD in plant genetics, in 2000, saw the publication of the first complete plant genome, and the sudden availability of a trove of information that could be accessed only through a computer terminal.

I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘bioinformatics’ at the time, but the idea that computers were essential for extracting useful information from large data sets was taking hold.

Now, I’m a professor at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. As a biologist, coding will be as big a part of my future – and my students’ – as extracting DNA and running gels.

I like to think I haven’t been left behind (after all, it says “Bioinformatics” next to my name on my list of research interests), so I’ve learnt to code. I’ve genuinely enjoyed it, but it hasn’t always been easy.

I started drawing cartoons as a graduate student and most of my illustrations document biology laboratories and the people who work there. I thought they might be a good way to capture some of my experiences while learning this new skill, and that they might resonate with other experimental biologists trying to figure things out in the world of bioinformatics.

I’m often asked: what is the best way to make progress? My answer is, stand next to someone who knows what they are doing.

Imagine it: you stand a metre behind a colleague who is staring intently at their monitor. They sense you, look up from their work and warmly say, “You seem to want some help. Take a seat!” Actually, this never happens.

Nevertheless, nothing increases your likelihood of making progress more than proximity to someone with more coding experience than you.

Swallow your pride and (politely) interrupt them. In my experience, if you ask for help with a well-defined question and respect your colleagues’ time, they are always helpful.

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