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Old 03-16-2011, 01:57 AM   #1
Junior Member
Location: Uppsala, Sweden

Join Date: Mar 2011
Posts: 3
Default Explaining bioinformatics to laypeople

Hello world

I'm a masters student in bioinformatics at Uppsala University, Sweden. Hopefully I'll work in a re-sequencing project this summer at the Swedish Agriculture University, also in Uppsala.

Lately I've had to explain to people what bioinformatics is, both to ordinary laymen and to medical students. The medical students have more knowledge (clearly) but it is limited in computer sciences and molecular biology/biotechnology.

My question is, how do you explain to ordinary people what bioinformatics is? I usually get carried away and people easily loose interest in their own question. How should I go about explaining bioinformatics in a short matter of time and informatively? Tell me about your experiences.

Have a nice day!
// Andreas, Uppsala

Last edited by Kakadua; 03-20-2011 at 10:29 AM.
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Old 03-16-2011, 07:47 AM   #2
Senior Member
Location: Woodbridge CT

Join Date: Oct 2008
Posts: 231
Default One picture..."Penny Lane"

The best single graphic I've found distilling the bioinfomatic challenges of genetic sequencing is


Figure 3 from an article published December 2010 J.R.Soc. Interface
doi: 10.1098/rsif.2010.0343.focus

You could certainly adapt the parameters to your location.
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Old 03-16-2011, 08:02 AM   #3
Location: Iowa City, IA

Join Date: Jul 2010
Posts: 95

I generally say it is "genetics and computers". The followup questions are usually "What is genetics?" or "So you are in IT?". Then I talk about sports.
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Old 03-16-2011, 08:48 AM   #4
Location: Groningen

Join Date: Feb 2010
Posts: 78

Yeah, I tend to keep it general as well, for the same reason: people losing interest in their own question.

@Joann: that is a pretty cool picture, thanks!

So I work at the hospital's genetics department. We research people's DNA, that is, their units of inheritance (that sounds a lot better in Dutch :P). We try to find genes (people generally know what a gene is) involved in diseases, and what change in such a gene causes it.

By knowing exactly which genes cause trouble, we can try to adapt treatment on an individual level.

For example: it is known that people with a certain heart condition can get a heart attack when exposed to certain chemotherapy. This only holds if the person has a very specific change in their DNA that plays a role in the heart condition, but that not all people with this heart condition have. Wouldn't it be nice if we could test for this change, and based on the results choos one chemo or the other? Wouldn't it be nice to find more such cases, where a simple change in traetment for certain people can reduce the risk of the treatment significantly?

So what is my part in this research? Unravel a person's DNA and try to locate changes. Researchers can then try to determine the significance of the changes I found. A human's book of life contains some 3 mln characters and they're all a, c, t or g. Go figure I need a computer.
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Old 03-17-2011, 01:36 AM   #5
Location: Zürich

Join Date: Apr 2010
Posts: 56

hm - I tend not to explain this to people that loose their interest anyway
what is generally true for people who have no clue of biology, informatics or both...

outline of a dialog with laymen :

"what's bioinformatics?"

"handling and analysing data from biological experiments that would be too big or too complex to have a look at by eye"

optional {

"so what are you doing?"

"I'm a plant gynecologist - so I want to know how they produce an egg"

"what for?"

"finally it may help to improve food production" (always nice to give a reason )


positive outcomes {


"lets have another beer and talk about ..."


one possibility for a negative outcome following the optional conversation {

"well - there's enough food for me - I'm rather worried about cancer"

"then stop smoking and go home to sleep"


I experienced that it's rather difficult to talk about the own field in a more detailed way even if the person is doing biology or informatics herself... so - if I'm out of work I talk about anything except of work (well - there are exceptions).
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"explain bioinformatics", bioinformatics, explain, explaining, laypeople

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