Three or four new students begin bioinformatics Ph.D.s at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) each year. Some need more training than others. Anton Enright, who is in the second year of his Ph.D., admits to having started his studies with quite a few of the "weird pool of skills" needed for bioinformatics research already in place. He did his first degree in genetics at Trinity College Dublin but "was always into computers," and he did a bioinformatics project in his final year. But Enright is unusual, as most new students have very little idea about what to expect. Andreas Heger confesses, "I didn't know exactly what bioinformatics was," when he first arrived at EBI. It doesn't seem to have been a drawback, however, as he's in his third year and well on the way to completing his doctorate.
Ph.D. students at the EBI are enrolled in the European Molecular Biology Laboratory's (EMBL's) Ph.D. programme, which takes about 50 students each year across the range of EMBL's research interests. Known as predoctoral fellowships, each studentship is for an initial 3.5 years, with a possible extension for a further 6 months, and comes with a "very good stipend" (predocs take home almost £1000 tax free every month). The application process for the limited number of well-remunerated places is exacting. Anton had a full day of interviews at the EBI before catching a 6 a.m. flight to Heidelberg the following morning for a further 4 days of interviews at EMBL headquarters.
On landing a place, all new Ph.D. students spend the first 2 months of their fellowship in Heidelberg and are brought up to speed with all the cutting-edge science being done at EMBL and its outstations. "It's breathtaking," says Michael Lappe. He joined the programme last October from a computer science background, and in common with all the other new students had to do some wet lab work during the induction. Everyone gets a feel for working on computers during this period too.
The philosophy behind the intense 2-month induction is that EMBL "believes Ph.D.s institute a lot of collaborations," according to Anton. By getting to know the strengths of all the different labs right at the start, the students think contacting them for advice and help now is a lot easier. And they build friendships with students scattered across EMBL's various sites which will last beyond their studies. "If we want to compete with American labs, we have to develop collaborations in Europe," points out Belgian Matthieu Louis.
Despite the advantages, "not many British students apply to the programme," says Caleb Webber, one of the few exceptions, who thinks it is not widely known in the UK. According to German Andreas, it's worth fighting for a place: "I think this programme is wonderful, we are really lucky," he says.
But what are your chances if you don't already have that weird skill mix? Caleb came from molecular biology and says liking computers "is more important than knowing how computers work." And Anton suggests that for those from a computing or physical sciences background, it's essential to "show an intense interest in biology." They all agree that, while it may be advantageous to broaden your knowledge as much as possible before arriving, in an environment like EBI it's more than possible to "learn on the fly."
Almost all the students agreed that it is worth the effort. With soaring demand for bioinformaticians, Caleb says, "now is really going to be my time."