Most coders come to bioinformatics by one of two routes. They’re either biologists skilled in programming, or programmers with an interest in biology. Mike Goodstadt, the programmer behind the genome-visualization tool TADkit, took a different approach.
In the early-to-mid 1990s, Goodstadt was a student at the University of Bath in the UK. His course of study: Architecture.
His training included an emphasis in 3D modeling, part of a larger research project aimed at digitally recreating the ancient city. After graduation, he helped develop residential neighborhoods. Later, Goodstadt moved to Valencia, Spain, where he worked for a firm that, among other things, designed and built a 61,500-seat FIFA-level soccer stadium.
Then, as economies faltered worldwide in 2008, and the bottom fell out of the housing market, Goodstadt branched out. He worked in marketing, putting his 3D modeling skills to work designing shampoo bottles. He taught himself programming and built web sites. Along the way, he befriended Marc Martí-Renom, a genome biologist who traveled in the same social circles in Valencia.
In 2013, Martí-Renom, now located at the Centre Nacional d’Anàlisi Genòmica – Centre de Regulació Genòmica (CNAG-CRG) in Barcelona, happened to be looking for someone with skills in both 3D modeling and programming. Goodstadt leapt at the opportunity.
“It combined the skills, the web-programming skills and the 3D skills in one single project,” he explains. “So that was a very attractive proposition. It was sort of like a coalescence of various different interests.”
“I had some scientific understanding, very basic, from subscriptions to New Scientist maybe,” he says. “But I am not a scientist by training. So when I joined obviously I had on-the-job training.”
Most daunting, he says, was presenting in group meetings to the more-established researchers on the team. Going in, Goodstadt says he idealized the scientists he was working with, expecting them to be both brilliant and remote. His experience was far different.
“Like any field, obviously, they are experts and have over 20 years ahead of you in the research they’ve done because they’ve been studying that,” he says. “But I found them very welcoming.”
His role in the FIFA stadium project proved to be unexpectedly useful. In Valencia, Goodstadt acted as a liaison between the architects and the construction workers, translating their needs and questions back and forth. Today he uses those same skills to liaise between biologists and programmers. “It’s interesting that there are affinities between what I did then and what I do now,” he says.
Four years into his career transition, Goodstadt says he has no regrets. “The project is fascinating. It hasn’t lost its intrigue from the first description that Marc gave to me. It’s addictive. You want to build more, do more, find out more.”
And, he adds, there’s no reason others cannot achieve a similarly dramatic career shift. The key, he says, is to recognize the value in seemingly tangential skills and to capitalize on the opportunities they present.
“That’s been the surprise for me in what I’ve been doing,” he says, “is to find that they have coalesced into something richer.”
Jeffrey Perkel is Technology Editor, Nature.
Image credit: http://www.cnag.cat/teams/genome-research-unit/structural-genomics-group