December 2011

Creating your own path: a bioinformatics case study

Faced with the reality that the majority of my time would be spent on the job, I was on a quest to find one that I love.


As early as elementary school, I was fascinated by science and medicine and was convinced I would become a brain surgeon. By the time I went to college, this changed toward forensics, and by the end of college I was thoroughly confused and realized that I hadn't quite found my greatest interest yet.

Having been fortunate to find a job in a yeast genetics laboratory, I sequenced and ran Westerns for a year and realized that bench work was not my forté. Importantly, though, bench work provided a lot of downtime that I, like most everyone else, used to browse the Internet.

Ewy Mathé is a staff scientist at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

During that time, as I was waiting for my timer to go off, I found my new calling: bioinformatics – specifically, protein-structure modeling. I started calling around to different academic institutions that offered bioinformatics degrees and decided to embark on a Ph.D. at George Mason University. The learning curve was steep (I had no computer-science classes under my belt when I applied), but the field switch was exciting and proved to be the best decision.

Why bioinformatics? 

One of the most exciting aspects of bioinformatics for me is its collaborative nature. Indeed, the field would not exist without large masses of raw data being generated that are of little worth without bioinformatics interpretation.

This dependency requires building a bridge between related yet diverse fields, both linguistically and knowledgewise, and thus provides opportunities to step out of your scope to better understand the challenges at hand. I find this aspect very exciting, as it allows me continuously to learn new biological aspects that I might not necessarily explore on my own.  

Furthermore, bioinformatics can be thought of in the context of team-science approaches that are becoming more prevalent as scientific projects grow in size and complexity. Indeed, the high level of expertise required and the increasing demands from publishers make it difficult thoroughly to address all aspects of a given project.

Nowadays, bioinformatics is most always a component of larger scale projects that require a team of experts who may or may not know each other. This team-science approach requires strong communication and the ability to coordinate efforts and keep the project moving along. Keeping everyone in line with the vision of the project and making expectations clear are critical for building a successful team.

Another stimulating aspect of bioinformatics for me is that it is not routine. The majority of the projects I undertake require novel applications and interpretations. A typical project requires unique ways of looking at the data and thus also requires a strong understanding of the biological question at hand. Furthermore, the field is very fast paced. While this attribute may be daunting, it is also very exciting, as bioinformatics is always at the forefront of new technologies and applications.

A whole new world 

Just as the bioinformatics field is very broad, the topics that I touched on in my training (and I am still training!) are also broad. During my Ph.D., I took advantage of lab rotations to touch on very different aspects, including image analysis, Monte Carlo simulations, genetic algorithms and computational geometry/protein-structure modeling.

While my thesis was centered on computational geometry and sequence alignments, I again switched gears in my postdoc and delved into genomics and metabolomics, all with a molecular epidemiology flavor. This switch has opened a whole new world for me, and, importantly, I had chosen to be in a wet lab environment as opposed to a purely computational laboratory.

The reason for this choice was to make sure that I stayed up to date with biology and learned how to communicate well with different participants in a given project. While you can stay up to date via the literature, I found it extremely valuable to be able to interact directly with bench scientists and have learned a lot from this direct interaction.


Life can shape your career path  

On a more personal note, my career path also has been molded by the fact that cancer has plagued my family, as it has a large number of families. Right after applying to Ph.D. programs, my brother was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma.

It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to invest my efforts in cancer research. I found a way to fit cancer research into my Ph.D. thesis by studying the p53 protein and mutations, which are very common in various cancer types. Since then, I have focused on finding diagnostic and prognostic markers in early stages of esophageal and lung cancers. This additional personal dimension to my research makes my work more personally valuable and drives me to do the best I can do.

Charting your path 

As you are reading this, you may be asking yourself, “What is the best trajectory for a successful career?” My answer to this is none. I do not think there is a best trajectory. This last statement should be more reassuring than alarming.

Indeed, I believe that everyone has to carve his or her own trajectory, as there is most likely a variety of definitions of a successful career. Do you define success as having achieved independence? Or perhaps by how much recognition or awards you are getting? Or perhaps by salary? By having achieved a good balance between family and work? By doing “good science”?

I find it very important to do a bit of soul searching to determine what makes you happy and how you envision your success, with the understanding that another person’s idea of success may not necessarily fit yours. Furthermore, recognize that your vision of success is not static and that it will probably evolve with time.

In this sense, it is useful to self-evaluate regularly and make changes accordingly. After all, your happiness in your work is directly correlated with drive and desire to accomplish tasks well. In other words, ensuring satisfaction with your work makes you most productive.

Finding and using mentors 

It is very useful to discuss professional development with mentors. Often, a laboratory chief or primary investigator is a default mentor. However, mentors can also be peers and collaborators from within or outside your institute.

Seeking outside mentors can be beneficial, because there is less fear of crossing a line that may affect daily work.

In addition, being a mentor can be quite fruitful in that it may force self reflection, deepen your knowledge, help build leadership skills, establish valuable professional relationships and provide a sense of gratification from contributing to someone’s advancement.

Taking this even a step further, it is essential to network. Participating in committees, attending and presenting at conferences, and forging collaborations are all avenues for networking. The ability clearly to delineate your work and interests is very important, and the ability to break past shyness or reservations and ask questions about others’ work and interests is very rewarding.

In my experience, many scientists love to talk about their work and interests and are flattered by inquiries. Opening up communications can be a great self-confidence builder and can establish important relationships.



Overall, I apply all the various aspects I have mentioned here in my career as I advance on my journey toward my self-defined success. I hope at this point that one main message is becoming apparent: Following a career path is a personal journey that may be redefined as you move forward. Also, acquiring expertise and knowledge should not be the only aspirations, for they are baselines.

With lots of Ph.D.s and brilliant people out there, we are all competing against the cream of the crop. With this in mind, it is critical to evaluate yourself frequently, redefine your vision, network and communicate clearly. These are very high expectations, and some aspects come more naturally to some than others. However, the same drive that kept us working long hours to finish our theses should be kept alive so that we continuously challenge ourselves to keep improving and learning.

After all, continual learning may be the most exciting aspect of working at the doctoral level!

Ewy Mathé ( is an associate professor at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

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