If I had to isolate one thing in my life which made me a scientist, it would be this. Other children who asked the capital of Burma, or where frogs came from, or why they mustn't stick a finger into the electric light socket, or what Dave and Evie were doing behind the bike shed, would get an answer, a slap, or a command to shut up. My own parents, however, always responded in the same atypical way: 'I don't know - let's find out!' This 'finding out' often involved an experiment, or dabbling in a pond, or visiting a museum, or (most frequently of all) consulting a book or local expert.
In my principal job of scientific consultant, I have come to realise that the viability of such 'freelance' work relies heavily upon the principle which novelist Graham Swift sums up as 'make a little do for a lot' - in other words, 'synergy'. It doesn't always pan out, of course. Sometimes I have on hand several brand new commissions with no overlap whatsoever, which is hard work. Most of the time, though, there will be opportunities to build on previous work. Then there are the rare occasions when everything dovetails perfectly - which is what happened with a recent set of assignments.
Background:'In the Hollow of a Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa', c. 1830, Katsushika Hokusai.
Bioinformatics as a discipline has been evolving and expanding throughout its short life. When the word was coined, some time in the 1990s, it was regarded as almost synonymous with sequence analysis. About a decade ago, bioinformatics meetings and journals were principally concerned with gene and protein sequences, how to analyse them, and what insights that analysis might give into the function of genes and the structures of the proteins they encode.
Pharmaceutical companies are showing growing interest in electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs), as I discussed in the November/December 2004 issue of Scientific Computing World. But this revived enthusiasm for capturing information from the research lab electronically has an unexpected consequence: it highlights the need for pharmaceutical companies to look hard at how they will archive their electronic data.
The technologies of computing as applied to science appear to be mature - at least, perhaps, until the Grid makes its presence more widely felt. But there are changes going on within the subject. Across disciplines as widely separated as engineering and life sciences, there have been recent announcements and developments that were surprisingly similar in their significance. If not innovation, then two other 'I' words - interoperability and integration - appear to be key defining features of the present and future direction of scientific computing.
Canada is a big country, so it should come as little surprise that this is where Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been developed and advanced. Professor Chris Gold, recently appointed to an EU Marie Curie Chair at Glamorgan University in Wales, started developing such systems to plot geological data while working in Canada. He came across a plotting method called Voronoi Diagrams and, for the past 20 years or so, has been developing them into data structures with countless applications outside geology.