Beginning my summer research internship – on bioinformatics and math and everything

What do you get when you combine running and nature, two of my favorite interests?

Pictured: nature

Cornell University, aka, the place where everyone runs and worships trees. Last Saturday I moved into a residence hall with ~20 other students as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) with the Boyce Thompson Institute, where I’ll be using computers, science, and computer science to study the DNA of tomatoes. When I was applying for summer internships, I thought this one sounded interesting, but I never realized how much I really loved Cornell and its atmosphere until I got here. Everything about being at a small, private school seems different than at the state college I attend. Even though its summer (which means the campus is mostly empty of students and there isn’t much going on), I still feel like I’m a student who truly belongs here. It makes me excited to do research, and I’m definitely going to miss it when I return at the beginning of August. 

The journey I’ve taken in my research career has been serendipitously zig-zaggy and spanned several fields, despite the fact that I’ve only finished my freshman year of college. When I was in high school, I participated in a summer science camp at a small college where I would start my research career. Unfortunately, though I was obsessed with math and physics, the college was only strong with biology research. But my professor introduced me to biostatistics, or, how the field in which people have finally realized that biology and math can coexist together without the world exploding. When I realized how essential mathematics was to biology, I joined the bandwagon of cocky physicists trying to explain all biological phenomena through numbers, and ended up in a bioinformatics lab at my university. There, I began to grind my nose to the concrete in research until I had the experience needed to get into this internship. Along the way, I’ve also joined a computational physics lab at my university, but I have yet to do much research on it. Hopefully, this summer or next fall, I can begin to get some work done in my physics lab as well. 

On my plane trip here, I met a sweet girl from Switzerland. We had lunch together and she gave me some Swiss chocolate!
Pictured: happiness. 
When people ask me what bioinformatics is, I usually respond that it’s “using computers to study biology.” But that’s a very superficial way to define a field of study. I might as well have just said “It’s about pushing buttons on a machine so that lights turn on and off.” It probably makes more sense to look at an area of study by examining the way it goes about solving problems and analyzing nature, rather than the methods and techniques used by the scientists.
The whole concept of having a field called “bioinformatics” always intrigued me. When we use computer science or statistics in biology, as we call it “bioinformatics” or “biostatistics” but when use computer science or statistics in physics, we don’t say “physioinformatics” or “physiostatistics”; we just say “physics.” I think this is the result of our ignorance of the connections between mathematics and biology. We’ve been taught that biology is a “soft science” that doesn’t require math the same way chemistry and physics do, despite the fact that there have been plenty of famous biologists (Eric Lander, Crick, Mendel, to name a few) who had extensive backgrounds in mathematics. 
I guess when Galileo said “The Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics,” he knew something about how we were going to describe our universe. 
There was a speaker today who explained that “bioinformatics is how biology has entered the field of computer science.” The cocky scientist inside of me scoffed as I thought “No way! Bioinformatics is how computer science entered biology, not the other way around.”
Until next time, this physicist-biologist-computerman will keep pushing buttons on this laptop.

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