Quotable Conversation

Gaston Gonnet (founder of the MAPLE computer algebra system) in an interview with Thomas Haigh in 2005 (SIAM History of Numerical Analysis and Scientific Computing Project; see here for the complete interview). I have fond memories of MAPLE as as a tremendously helpful tool for checking operations involving special functions, something that I dabbled in quite some time ago.

Now that I have worked several years in bioinformatics, the work in bioinformatics can be summarized as: you have to be good at algorithms, and you have to be very good at probability and statistics. You are not working with completely deterministic objects. You are not working with mathematical formulas that go only one, you are not working with problems which have a unique and precise answer. You are working with nature that has gone into a process of evolution in a relatively random way. This randomness percolates everything that you do because this randomness is not only in nature, but in all the data that you acquire. You acquire data, and the data is not exact. It’s subject to error because of the nature of the data or the nature of the acquisition of the data.

What I tell all my students and my grad students when they come is to make sure that their background in algorithms and their background in probability and statistics are really strong. If they have a good background in algorithms and statistics, quite a bit of scientific computation helps. It helps if someone knows how to integrate a system of differential equations or finding a minimum in an efficient way. Those kinds of basic scientific computation abilities are also very helpful. But if you are good at those two and possibly that third one, you are going to be good a bioinformatician. There is no two ways about it. But you have to understand algorithms and statistics, and that’s maybe the crucial point.

About Tsung Fei

A teacher, researcher in the bioinformatics division at the University of Malaya
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6 Responses to Quotable Conversation

  1. Esmonde says:

    Bad at statistics here. lols

    • Tsung Fei says:

      Maybe you just had a bad statistics teacher? LOLS

      • jlkuan says:

        Or. Maybe the student (me) is not motivated to do self-studying. LOLs

        I am easily satisfied with small achievements that hinders me from getting things done completely. Any advice on how to change this mentality? My case of procrastination is getting worse day by day. Perhaps I should learn from Socrates as he quoted “I know that I know nothing” for motivation in reaching one`s full potential.

      • Tsung Fei says:

        I guess the motivation will come after one establishes clearly what direction one wishes to pursue. After that, benchmarking against some ideal cases will provide some drive. Small successes are nice for leading to a buildup of confidence.

  2. jlkuan says:

    Finally, the secret to become a good Bioinformatician is revealed! lol
    Need a lot of brushing up in Algo, Stats and Prob. All which I am not familiar with. A long way to go… 😀

    • Tsung Fei says:

      Actually, these are necessary but not sufficient conditions to become a good bioinformatician. It is also necessary to spend time to understand the subject matter which could be specialised areas in molecular biology (e.g. immunology, systems biology, etc.), so that the solution makes sense and is just not a demonstration of technical brilliance aimed at nothing.

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