We could agree that a bioinformatician is basically a naked, starving castaway who’s trying to survive in a desert island. As in one of those realities that run on tv, or in the movie starring Tom Hanks, he is provided with a knife, quite a few clothes, and a good dose of motivation. In this allegory, the island is the computational research in life sciences, the knife represents the programming and mathematical skills, and the few clothes are the biological knowledge. As a castaway, the main occupation of the computational biology is to solve problems, doing the best to build new tools, explore the environment, fetch food (or a fair amount of coffee), and grow his/her knowledge.
Many educational programs in bioinformatics, both at academic and open-course level, are oriented in providing the basis for the computational work, the programming skills, the minimum biological knowledge, and statistics. In our story, this would mean that the most of the programmes you are going to meet will just provide you with the knife and a couple of tattered clothes.
This is the reason why I was really amazed when I discovered Rosalind, a website proposing a bioinformatics training system that is oriented to problem solving. The training is organised as a game. You subscribe with you email, and they propose you to solve bioinformatics problems at different level of complexity. Problems are divided into several topics, and any problem will give you points if solved, with no penalisation for failure. Remarkably, and despite any expectation, this doesn’t look a website for students only. The diversity of problems proposed and the number of ambits involved are really high, and even experienced bioinformaticians may find this website really useful to learn new things. More, there is an option available for lecturers to apply for a professor account and use Rosalind to generate exercises to propose in classes.
The project is carried on by a Russian- American collaboration between the University of California at San Diego, and Saint Petersburg Academic University, along with the Russian Academy of Sciences. It is inspired by an handful of e-learning projects that are oriented to provide a problem-solving platform on the web, such as the Project Euler and Google Code Jam.
Luckily, computational research in biology can be represented only partially by the castaway allegory. In deed, as you do bioinformatics you are not in a remote island, as you can enjoy the communication with other scientists, and the (more or less) free learning resources available on the web. And even if you may feel alone in your island sometimes, with dirty and torn clothes on and a blunt knife in your hand, you can still lean on some comfort and help. In this optic, we may assume projects like Rosalind as a nice volley ball friend keeping you up during the darkest nights.