Case study

Introducing big data biology — Cardiff University

One way to get ahead in this fairly new and rapidly rising field is to study a course like the MSc Big Data Biology at Cardiff University. Dr Veronica Grieneisen, course director and reader in systems biology tells us a little more about what you can expect

What is big data biology?

When we talk about big data, we mean data that is too large or complex to be analysed by traditional means. Big data biology searches for meaningful patterns in such data-sets using informatics and statistics, coupled with biological reasoning. The patterns that we can uncover are key to understanding biological systems and mechanisms in order to make predictions about biological systems. Our ultimate goal is to better understand life and living organisms.

Why was the MSc Big Data Biology course introduced?

The technology to collect and store data has advanced rapidly, from the genomic and molecular scale, up to, for example, satellite imaging of ecosystems. We urgently need a new type of biologist who can exploit the richness of these new data sets to extract meaning.

Our MSc recognises the need for novel approaches to process and interpret big data and new ways of working and thinking to extract new biological insights. This requires new skills and new approaches, which we teach, develop and apply throughout the course. In short, we have introduced this MSc Big Data Biology to fill the existing lack of scientists able to tackle current scientific and societal challenges.

We aim to empower our students to become the next generation of scientist able to address these challenges - for example, in the areas of drug discovery, food security and climate change.

Why study at Cardiff University?

In the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, biosciences research at Cardiff was ranked 7th in the UK for impact and 8th the UK for research power. The School of Biosciences also has a very friendly community, making it the optimal environment for interdisciplinary and data scientists.

Cardiff has recently seen a number of excellent systems biologists coming and establishing themselves here, with links to different research centres. Our students will enjoy being part of a growing network of outstanding systems biologists, in which exciting scientific collaborations can be forged for their case studies and dissertation projects. Through regular scientific and social events during the MSc, students will be able to meet and be guided by specialists in their areas of interest.

Moreover, big data biology students will benefit from state-of-the art computational facilities for high-performance computing, together with an outstanding scientific computational support.

Last but not least, Cardiff, the capital of Wales, is one of the most affordable university cities in the UK, and a lively place to live with many cultural attractions, located in a region of great natural beauty and history.

What type of students would suit this course?

This course is designed for those with a deep sense of curiosity about living systems and a willingness to try new computational methods and ways of thinking. It is aimed both at life-science students (biologists, chemists, plant scientists and biomedical students) and STEM-orientated students (mathematicians, physicists, computational scientists and engineers). It is also open to those in relevant employment, looking to progress their career.

Tell us about the real world elements of the course…

I want to emphasise that besides providing theory through formal lectures, our MSc's driving philosophy is that students learn by doing. This means, a lot of hands-on workshops and participative sessions as well. The course is structured in three stages to nurture an increasing degree of scientific independence in students.

First, we teach and practise important analytical skills through guided workshop time. Students learn computational and hands-on skills that serve as the foundation for the rest of the course. These are also skills that could be immediately employed in the job market or any big data-related area.

Second, we dive deeper into the biological analysis of patterns, through bioinformatics as well as systems modelling - using computers to simulate systems, such as cancer cell growth, swarming organisms, ecological systems etc. Here, students undertake a case study project to analysis and research real data.

In the final phase of the MSc, students consolidate their learning through their dissertation research projects, which are state-of-the-art science projects in the area they want to specialise in. This provides another opportunity to work with real data and explore different research areas before committing to one specialisation.

How do you see careers in the area developing over the next ten years?

The course will empower students in a world in which data processing and analytics are becoming an essential part of many careers. Biological data in particular is vastly complex, and once a student is able to handle this sort of complexity, they will have the technical capabilities to extrapolate their skills to other complex systems such as economy, marketing etc.

Nevertheless, our main aim in developing this course is to develop a deeper understanding of life sciences so students can make real contributions in the areas they wish to pursue, whether that’s in academia, government or industry.

Some of the potential roles our students could embark on are as research scientists, bioinformaticians and ecologists.

What advice do you have for anyone considering a career in big data biology?

Big data biology is an growing field, with many possible directions - so, students can really take it to where their passion lies. If you are a biologist or a life scientist but don't consider yourself an IT expert or mathematically inclined, don't rule out this field - the most important thing is to have an open mind and a willingness to tackle new challenges.

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