Getting started with pRogramming

With the new term fast approaching we will soon have a number of new students.

Whilst they will come expecting to improve their wet lab skills by spending time in the lab learning new techniques and performing experiments, they may not be aware of the amount of time they will spend in front of the computer using programming to analyse the data they generate. Fortunately many biosciences undergraduate courses teach some statistics and increasing a little bioinformatics, so the students don’t arrive completely unprepared.

With this in mind, I thought I’d run through some of the ways you can go about learning to program, specifically focusing on the statistical language R.

I always like to reiterate that all my programming skills are self taught and I highly doubt that I am not the only one. Practically it is a very hard skill to teach in a classroom setting and the best way to learn is to get stuck in. Trial and error through experience is how you will progress, so it can be very attractive to employers or course providers if you have already had a go. It shows enthusiasm, a go-getting attitude and forward thinking, particularly if it it off the back of your own initiative.

When I started I downloaded the software (freely available) and worked through the ‘Introduction to R’ manual. This is a very dry way to go about it – and I will acknowledge, I did not make it to the end of the document. However, it helped me understand some of the basic principles about variables and functions. From there I was able (with the help of Google) to develop code to acheive the statistical tasks as I needed to.

Since then I have discovered a number of  online tutorials, which provide an interactive environment with hints and tips to make the process more successful and hopefully more enjoyable. In particular, DataCamp (again free) has been highly praised by colleagues  starting out of their programming journey. It is designed for beginners so is appropriate for any age, stage of education, or purpose.

I have recently tried it out with some work experience students who really enjoyed the experience. Programming can seem intimidating, not knowing where to start, fear you’ll break the computer or delete something important, unsure what exactly it can be used to do. These online aids remove many of these worries, and are a great option if you thinking you may be interested in a career involving programming but don’t know how you’ll get on.

In fact I’d encourage everyone to have a go, it is more accessible than you think. You never know what you are capable of until you try and it may even help you decide what career path you wish to follow.

Over the next academic year you may be faced with decisions about what to do next, which subjects to study at GCSE or A-level, whether to look for a job or continue with your studies, which Universities to apply to and what courses to do, what job or career path to follow? Or perhaps you just fancy learning a new skill that may lead to a new direction. Trying out some programming, it may open some doors you didn’t know existed, just like me!

Good luck!



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