Computer vs. Human: From a computer nerd who went into bioinformatics

A lot of people ask me how I went from computer science to bioinformatics. Actually, the two fields aren’t that different. Computers store long-term data in a disk with 0’s and 1’s, while cells store long-term data in DNA as A, C, G, and T. Computers store transient data in the cache or RAM, while cells store it in the form of mRNA transcripts. The human cognitive function is Turing-complete. However aside from my youthful dream of curing cancer six years ago, the main reason why I wanted to study biology is that most of the advancement in computations can be solved with principals in biology.

During my time in a High-Performance Computing lab during undergrad, the computer geeks (including me) were cracking their heads to optimize computer infrastructure. It was only until I learned biology that I found out that most of what we were doing was already solved in biology, for examples:

  1. Cells are distributed computers: There are billions of neurons in your brain, yet you think coherently every day (hopefully). I don’t think even Amazon Cloud has over a trillion computers.
  2. Human is resilient: Human lifespan is probably longer than the new MacBook. Also, to face new challenges, you grow and adapt to become the new you, whether you like it or not. Moreover, your body basically regenerates most of the cells every decade.

The reason why I switched from designing computing infrastructure to biology was that physiology and anatomy of your body make the most cutting-edge computers look like a simple and naive. Here are some examples:

  1. 3D stacking: One key problem in 3D stacking is about solving the heat dissipation problem. Your brain is 3D with all the neurons and it is not melted yet.
  2. Dynamically recreating circuits: There are one trillion neurons in your brain re-constructing a different neural network every day. Dynamically recreating circuits (FPGA) is what your cell does with the proteins and RNA every day.
  3. Memory caching: We have been constantly solving the issue of efficient memory caching in machine design. But the human brain already has it solved. The hippocampus stores short-term memory, with attentional modulation to determine which parts of memories are important for future retrieval.

Life is a miracle.

Author: Brian Y Tsui, Bioinformatics, Ph.D. Candidate, UC San Diego. https://www.linkedin.com/in/brian-y-tsui/

Edited by: Tiffany Hwu, Cognitive Science, Ph.D. Candidate, UC Irvine.

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