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I am in my last year of studies for a bachelor's degree in software engineering and I am currently considering different options for my career path. I don't have any background in medicine, but I would love to work in the medical/research field, specifically relating to cancer treatments. What would be the best/quickest way of doing so, considering my background? I don't plan on doing an additional bachelor's degree in medicine.

Here are some options I came up with:

  • Find a full-time position in biotech after my bachelor's degree
  • Do a master's degree in software engineering and find a full-time position in biotech
  • Do a master's degree specifically in biomedical engineering (if possible)
  • Doing an additional master's degree in biomedical engineering
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    A "cure" for cancer? Unlikely. But improving treatments for cancer? Much. Radiotherapy nowadays is basically very advanced software and physics. I am an electrical engineering that did a PhD on cancer treatment, in particular computational methods for 4D imaging with tomography. Jul 10, 2023 at 15:23
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    There’s a fifth option you had not listed: Contribute actively to the development of major projects used for this type of reasearch, such as AMORPHA, BOINC, or EMBOSS. That approach requires much less knowledge of biotech and bioinfomatics and thus would be easier to get into, though you would also be making a much less direct impact. Jul 10, 2023 at 19:45
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    Tuning AI systems to handle cancer research is also possible. If you have the drive, you should talk to student advisors on how to progress in this path. If they can't answer you, they can definitely find people that can.
    – Nelson
    Jul 11, 2023 at 1:41
  • you definitely need to build a connection with someone in cancer research field, also do you seek financial reward from this or purely a side hobby? that answer would greatly differ depending on your skill set. Jul 11, 2023 at 3:57
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    I hear that bioinformatics is a big field in the last decade and still today! Processing protein and DNA sequences and trying to calculate what they do.
    – user253751
    Jul 11, 2023 at 13:43

12 Answers 12

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I am a research administrator who has supported a machine learning professor for 8 years. She doesn't do cancer research, but she is a CS person who works with hospitals and analyzes their data for them (mostly in autism, diabetes). CS departments are getting a lot more time with health data. You could look into a job like that, e.g., as a post-bac if you are interested in moving up into an academic rung. Alternatively, I have a research administration friend who works at a Cancer Institute. You could do IT-like work at a Cancer Institute or other type of hospital and support the work that way. Research administrators frequently cite supporting research as why we stay in the field (which is incredibly stressful). I have been essential in training PIs in how to get grants for 15 years--sure, I'm not curing cancer or discovering the next big thing--but I know that I am crucial in making those discoveries happen; faculty tell me this, because they don't want to do the work I do, but it is essential if they are going to run a lab at all.

Consider using a job search portal with a job skill you have, e.g., "Agile", "python", etc. + "cancer". You just have to know what type of job you are looking for (academic vs. staff). If you look at a program administrator type job in CS that is oriented towards health, that might be a really great fit. It is incredibly difficult to find qualified folks who will do that work.

Here's an example.

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    +1 if only for pointing out how much an industry depends on software, but kinda treats it as a necessary evil. The one-trillion-dollar electronics market is supported by the ten-billion dollar design automation market. The former doesn't exist anymore without the later... but suggest raising prices to enhance development and listen to that one-trillion-dollar industry howl. Critical software development is high stress because the specialist PhDs don't want to share credit - but it's just as important as the PhD specialists in their fields.
    – JBH
    Jul 10, 2023 at 20:46
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No additional bachelors is likely to be of much help. It would only get you an entry level position, likely far removed from research. You need something more advanced and more related to medical research. Ideally a doctorate. In the US, you could probably apply directly to a doctoral program, but elsewhere it might be more of a problem.

But a cure for cancer, or any other complex disease, requires training and skills in medical research. That is a long way from SWE. The processes are very different.

Yes, medical researchers need some amount of programming to back up their studies, but that is just support.

A research based masters in the biomedical area, whether engineering or not, might be enough.

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    "just support" still helps and is necessary, though admittedly not very glamorous. You don't have to be "the hero of the story" to make a positive contribution. Jul 10, 2023 at 7:50
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As others have mentioned, it will be difficult for you to pivot into the research side of things without doing a significant amount of retraining in the domain. It's also been mentioned that this will therefore cut off the "glamorous" side of the job. However, let's be realistic: Research is about incremental advancement. Disruptive change can happen, but it's incredibly rare -- increasingly so, I would anecdotally say -- as science becomes a huge enterprise involving hundreds or even thousands of people. My point being, there isn't really a glamorous side!

This is a good thing, as it will allow you to focus on your strengths; that is, software engineering. Modern medical and genetic research -- which covers, e.g., somatic mutation (cancer) -- involves huge amounts of data and sophisticated tools to process and analyse these data. The algorithms for these tools are often designed by domain experts, but software in science has a reputation for being, let's say, "thrown together". (Which makes sense, given the economic factors at play.) A software engineer thus has quite a bit of leverage to improve existing tools or develop new methods that scale with big data (and I mean really big; petabytes).

tl;dr I would look into a masters in bioinformatics. This will give you the domain grounding you'll need -- although it's not strictly necessary, but will give you an edge -- to get into the space and make positive contributions to the field.

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As a software engineer, you can do a lot of work in medical fields with little to no medical backgrounds. You will obviously have to learn about the subject you work on, but rarely to a point where you'd need an entire undergrad on a related subject to understand it. However, as it was pointed by other answers, you'll struggle to pivot to something entirely focused on biomedical, such as "cancer treatment".

It obviously depends on your location, and which type of medical research you want to focus on, but I'll give you the example I know about, which is mostly mine and people I work with.

I did my undergrad in software engineering and a Master in AI. After that I found a PhD in deep learning, which is applied to a certain type of medical imaging, specifically on the subject of lungs cancer. The goal is to develop and improve this new modality to replace the current gold standard in cancer detection, to improve the diagnostic and prognosis of cancer.

I also did an internship where I worked on a totally different imaging modality, which was used for blood vessel detection, and I worked on semantic segmentation (both with image processing and deep learning).

In both cases for me, and similarly for the people I work with, learning about the medical side was not "easy". You need to go through a lot of paper (as well as other support). Which is why a PhD can be important.

Additionally, in the example I know about in industry, a lot of researcher offer ask for a PhD (not all, and the requirement may not be mandatory, but still).

While the answer may not exactly what you are looking for, i.e. "cure for cancer" (which is an extremely vast domain anyway), with a SWE background, you can very well make progress in the research against cancer. The example I can give are as a machine learning researcher for detection of cancer (such as plain detection, classification, segmentation of tumor margin for operation, etc). You can also work as a software developer to create the software that will operates on the different imaging modality. Or create tools that will be used by researchers.

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    Indeed. I am one example and even got my name on a Nature paper! Jul 12, 2023 at 19:53
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If you want to be a researcher you will need a masters degree (and eventually a phd). For someone like you with a techinical background (Mathematics, Computer Science, Physics, Software Engineering etc), who wants to go into biological research you should be looking for a masters in Systems Biology or Bioinformatics.

I have a similar background (Maths/CS undergraduate) and I made the jump into biological research after my PhD, it was a learning cliff - but fun! I now teach systems biology masters students and we take students with all different backgrounds. Those with technical skills do very well in our masters programme and often end up going on to PhDs and becoming researchers.

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Many answers recommend getting a master's in bio-informatics, but with your background in SE, you could also consider a different degree: Artificial Intelligence. That's what I did. I found a program that specializes in simulation/computational modeling/neuroscience, did my master's thesis at an academic hospital, and now I'm doing a Ph.D. on using AI to detect dementia. I'm sure you could apply many of the same skills to cancer research.

There are many advantages (and probably some disadvantages) to doing it this way. For one, the switch from SE to AI will probably be smoother than when you try to catch up on 3 years of biomedical knowledge. You can always acquire domain knowledge as it comes along. It will also be much easier to switch careers in the future if you have an AI degree - you could move into any industry you like.

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  • Find a full-time position after my bachelor's in biotech

This.

I've worked in biotech / bioinfomatics for 15+ years, and one of the biggest problems is poorly written and maintained software and datasets, and a general lack of understanding of what computers can and can't do. For me it is paid well and with good conditions & security (as most software engineering careers do, and doubly so once you have some bio experience). It is very much a team effort though, and there are plenty of biologists and scientists that can do the bio side, so good communication skills will help.

I suspect you could find a very fulfilling position even if it isn't directly science/research related. Something as "boring" as an appointment system or medication reminders can make a huge difference to quality of life for patients!

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Since you have no experience in wet lab, you have to go down the path of computational research.

In order to do that you have to take a thesis about Cancer research in Masters. Your supervisor must be from the field you are looking for.

Next, you should go for a Ph.D. as Masters won't be enough to gather experience.

After a huge amount of self-study, you will be able to become a researcher in Cancer research.

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  • Why get a masters if you plan to get a PhD eventually? And if you're getting a PhD, there's no reason to foreclose everything but computational research. You can learn those skills, even if it means spending your first year of a PhD program taking upper-division undergrad courses. This answer really just boils down to "get a PhD", which is definitely sufficient to get into academic research on cancer, but doesn't seem to answer the question that was asked. Jul 11, 2023 at 8:08
  • @CodyGray-onstrike, Why get a masters if you plan to get a PhD eventually? --- Coz, I don't know where he lives. Europe doesn't allow a Ph.D. without a Master's.
    – user366312
    Jul 11, 2023 at 8:22
  • @CodyGray-onstrike, And if you're getting a Ph.D., there's no reason to foreclose everything but computational research. --- Coz, that would simply be a total waste of time. Besides, wet lab jobs are not as frequent as computational jobs.
    – user366312
    Jul 11, 2023 at 8:23
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    @CodyGray-onstrike, This answer really just boils down to "get a PhD", which is definitely sufficient to get into academic research on cancer, but doesn't seem to answer the question that was asked. --- What is missing in my answer?
    – user366312
    Jul 11, 2023 at 8:24
  • @CodyGray-onstrike Where I'm currently studying (Quebec, Canada), it is generally required to get a master's before a PhD; I didn't realize you could actually skip that part in different countries:') I am considering studying abroad though, so I guess it still applies.
    – fordcars
    Jul 12, 2023 at 14:11
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If you want to work in research on cancer or in another biological field you will need a PhD, and prior to that a masters, options for the masters could be bioinformation, biotechnology, bioengineering, biophysics which would be natural ways to move from a more technical focus to gain skills in biology.

Given your lack of background in biology, you should probably do some background study for these masters. You could also look around in the biology department at your university and see if there is a biology colloquium that you could attend and perhaps speak to some of the researchers there who might be able to direct you better. They can probably also give you some insights into the field which might help you decide on what you really want to do and how to get there.

Once you have the masters, then you can apply for a PhD on a topic of interest to you, if you can find a supervisor who is willing to supervise you for it. If you apply in the US then the masters is merged with a PhD and you can go into a PhD program directly from your bachelors. However I would recommend you do a master's program in order to develop your background in biology even if you choose to do a US PhD (and are therefore in effect doing 2 masters).

Something the other questions haven't mentioned is that there is a developing focus on complex systems in biology research. Mathematically this is probably similar to the complex systems and ecosystems that you're familiar with in software and are currently studying. in this language you can probably think of cancer as a rouge process that is requesting resources (RAM, comp cycles) while avoiding the kill commands. Similarly you could probably think of parts of the immune system as algorithms that rely on pseudo random number generators. You may be able to leverage your familiarity with complex systems from computing if you learn the associated biology (or biophysics) to give a different view on these kinds of problems. This might not just be cancer research but other biological process or tools (I'm imagining CRISPR here).

PS: for context I'm a (quantum information) physicist and not a biologist, so it is natural I'd think about biology from a computational perspective.

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@fordcars Does it have to be scientific research, or will engineering do? Realistically nobody is going to "cure cancer" unless they get a product to market, and that involves engineering spanning a number of disciplines: microfluidics, mechanical, electronics, and software.

I retired a while ago from a career in software engineering, and the last 12 years were spent working on medical devices, including two cancer projects: we developed code to drive robots that were amplifying RNA for a autologous tumour cell vaccines; and we developed the software for a test for HPV, the precursor to cervical cancer (instead of curing cancer, why not prevent it instead?).

If that is a path you want to go down, you might benefit from learning about developing software for medical devices. IEC62304 would be a good start.

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  • I'm definitely open to the engineering side; maybe even more so than research (considering it is the field I've been studying). That definitely sounds like a career I'd like to have. I'll take a look at the standard.
    – fordcars
    Jul 13, 2023 at 4:00
  • @fordcars Diagnosing cancer is very important; the earlier we find the little blighters, the easier it is to kill them. Have you looked at kaggle? There have been several competitions aimed at detecting tumours, e.g. RSNA-MICCAI Brain Tumor Radiogenomic Classification. Maybe you could sharpen your skills? Jul 13, 2023 at 5:25
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You could consider the emulation of biological structures in a virtual environment. It may be easier to join in on an existing project, rather than having to do another degree. Bonus points if you make it a Citizen science project, when people around the world can effectively contribute to fighting cancers and other diseases, including everyday citizens who do not have any medical or biological expertise. Distributed computing projects are a fantastic way to make use of people's computers, smart phones and tablets to donate their computing power to solve real-world problems.

There have been lots of distributed computing projects.

Here are just a few select distributed computing projects running currently:

Folding@home, Rosetta@home - Uses the computational power of people's computer systems to 'fold' protein structures in 3-dimensional space. Protein structures are 'folded' (compacted) in an attempt to reach their optimal state, a stable shape that allows them to function correctly and survive in their immediate environment. Solving naturally occurring protein structures helps scientists understand the function of those proteins more accurately. Novel protein structures can also be created to aid real-world problems, such as treating diseases (vaccines), or creating new materials.

Mapping Cancer Markers - Project that attempts to find markers that relate to different kinds of cancer from the tissue samples of cancerous patients. The markers are compared to identify patterns of markers, to detect signs of cancer growth earlier and customise treatments for specific patients based on their genetic profile. This is a child project of the World Community Grid program, which has featured over 30 different distributed computing projects.


You could also consider the gamification of biological structures, which could make it more appealing for people to install and try out. Existing projects incorporate the 2D or 3D modelling and sequences of biological structures with the goal of allowing everyday citizens without much knowledge in the field of medicine, to contribute towards research in curing various diseases, including cancer. The structures may represent the inner-workings of diseases, or the medicines to fight them with, with the intention of understanding more about them in a virtual environment on a computer system.

Users of a computer program that employs this concept would be expected to interact with a spatial or logical representation of a biological structure on screen, as a kind of puzzle to be solved. The structure may be manipulated in real-time using a keyboard or mouse, and may have a suite of virtual tools that can be used to manipulate the structure in various ways, for various purposes. The gamification aspect helps to maintain their interest, while they work towards achieving a publicly recognised goal or score.

Here are some examples of existing game projects that you may want to check out:

Cancer Crusade - A 2D mobile game featuring treatment management for cancerous cells of individual patients. Use varying amounts and frequencies of chemotherapy, HAPs (Hypoxia Activated Prodrugs), and pro and anti-angio drugs, to slow down and control the growth of cancers over a period of time.

Genigma - A 2D mobile game that aims to fight cancer by studying human genomes. Originally focused on fighting breast cancer, it has since expanded to include the analysis of other cancers. Please note that the game is currently closed for data analysis.

Foldit - A 3D computer game featuring protein structure folding. Similar to Folding@home, it differs in that it allows people the ability to interact with virtual proteins structures themselves using various virtual tools in a user-friendly GUI. People are able to manipulate protein structures in real-time, and can even generate 'recipes' (think programmable sequences of tools) in the Lua language, which can run by themselves at the user's command.

Eterna - A 2D game featuring RNA folding. Similar in concept to (and inspired by) Foldit, it focuses on folding RNA strands by changing sequences of base molecules such that specific shapes are formed for medical purposes. Now available on mobile devices.

If you want to go down the path of making your own citizen science game, or perhaps even a citizen science project that doesn't require interaction (like Folding@home), consider using Unity. It is a game development environment capable of making games (and other programs) that operate on multiple platforms and operating systems, and takes a lot of the ground work out of coding. It uses the C# language natively, and other languages based on the .NET framework may also be used as alternatives.

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You might consider high performance computing, which is a field that always needs people and will likely bring you frequently into contact with bioscientists needing help with scaling up their research.

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