By Vicky Butt, who is a PhD student studying bioinformatics and metagenomics at King’s College London.
With this ever-increasing amount of biological data, such as genomics, the only way to make sense of it is to write computer programmes. Principal investigators and industries are now hiring more computer scientists and bioinformaticians to do this, but there is a shortage of these individuals. Now is the perfect opportunity for women in science to learn to code. But what is really happening? More often than not, women in the life sciences tell me they do not want to learn to code because they don’t feel they have the right mind for it or it’s something only men can do. For those who want to learn to code, many do not know where to start or what support is out there. And for those of us who code on a daily basis, we have taken different paths to get to where we are now, but have all battled against the same prejudices of women’s place in computer science. Here, I share my experiences getting into computer science, and the resources I used to help me get there.
How I got there
Despite being labelled by my peers at school for being a massive geek for loving physics and maths, I didn’t even know what computer science was. Hear me out, I thought it was just a thing that was reserved for the male super-nerds, and if I did show an inkling of interest, I’d be an outcast. I laugh at this now, but sadly this problem of pressure on girls in secondary schools to maintain an “image” and to not being labelled a “geek” isn’t getting any better. Even the recent introduction of computer science to the UK school curriculum isn’t helping .
I did a Natural Sciences degree, taking modules in the physical sciences in first year. There was a compulsory course in MATLAB, which I more than struggled with. Little did I know at that time that it was badly taught, and I wasn’t forever consigned to being a disaster coder. And for those (mostly men) who could do the assignments with a few taps of the keyboard, they had already learnt to code before going to university. If anything, that first year just reinforced the idea I had at school. I was right – it was reserved for the male super-nerds, like the intelligent physicists who seemed to swim to it like a duck to water. I baulked majorly. I switched to biology in second year to leave the competitive male-dominated environment behind. By no means was it an easy choice, but it felt safe.
The vacation between second and third year was fast approaching, and I was applying for research experience. I wasn’t having much luck and I was getting desperate, so I applied to a computational biology project thinking it wouldn’t be too competitive. And I got it. I quickly realised the MATLAB course in first year was useless for the project, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t a “natural” at coding. The course didn’t teach me how to ask the right questions, approach the problem properly nor how to code concisely.
After my placement, I was determined to teach myself how to code in python. I tried many different resources, some being a lot better than others. Finally, I found a free online course that taught me WHY code works rather than just HOW. Then the penny finally dropped, and it all just clicked in my head. I could apply what I learnt to any programming language and approach problems in a logical way. I had the confidence to apply for a funded Systems Biology Masters, and now I’m doing a PhD in bioinformatics.
For all the women in science
I implore you to learn to code, even if the sound of it sends a shiver down your spine.
When people say “coding is hard”, they actually mean this: coding itself is NOT hard. Finding the right resources is the hard bit. So to make it easier, here they are, which I have tried to list in order of importance:
- Surround yourself with a support network of women who code/are learning to code.
The network I was in at university was Code First: Girls where I met (and continue to meet) like-minded women. They are an amazing organisation providing free coding courses to women students at university and to recent graduates. The courses are two hours a week for 6-8 weeks, and teach html/CSS, python and ruby (If they don’t have a branch at your university, contact them to start one)
- Bioinformatics resources
You can find lots of courses and materials from various sources here
- Thinking like a computer scientist: the online course that made the penny drop
I really recommend this free online course in python from MIT. It will teach you how and why code works, how to think logically, how to write efficient code, debug – all the things you will come across in your research careers.
- Learn R and python
I learnt R on DataCamp, and you can learn python here too. Python is now used a lot, and dare I say it, may supersede MATLAB. R is the best language for manipulating large spreadsheets and statistics, but also has cool packages and visualisations. Do not underestimate the power of R.
- Unix will come in handy
The command line will become your friend
- Learn what Github is
There are loads of great resources online to learn Github, but if you want to query something that you messed up, this is wonderful
- Keep learning!
The list doesn’t stop you there. As a programmer, you will be constantly picking up new things, like adapting to trends in the community and learning other languages. This is what I love about computer science: I am constantly exploring and applying what I learn to new puzzles in biology