Assitant Faculty Member, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Biotechnology (biotech) involves the study and use of living organisms or cell processes to make useful products. The first person to produce beer by using the process of fermentation could be described as an amateur biotechnologist. Over time, the term evolved as biotechnology advanced in areas such as drug development, human and animal nutrition, agricultural improvements, and environmental protection. The cloning of insulin, used to treat diabetics, was one of the earliest modern breakthroughs in biotechnology.
The practice of biotechnology has been used by humans for centuries, it wasn’t until 1996 that the first biologics (the products of biotechnology) were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and over 120 biologics have been approved since then. Biotech companies are integrating the sciences and bringing new perspectives from various fields such as chemistry, biochemistry, and genetics to tackle biomedical questions. Success in developing a new biotechnology product requires years of work and successful interaction among chemists, biologists, crystallographers, molecular modeling specialists, and other scientists to develop effective solutions to today’s complex problems.
Because biotechnology requires an understanding of many different scientific disciplines, taking a wide variety of courses in biology, chemistry, molecular biology, and genetics is advisable.
Although individuals have advanced in the biotechnology field with a bachelor’s degree in biology or a closely related field, most scientists say it is necessary to have a Ph.D. to be assigned creative work. Many bachelor’s degree candidates work at a biotechnology firm as a research assistant for one to two years before pursuing an advanced degree.
As with most fields, gaining real work experience while in school is an invaluable way to find out what this field is really like and if this work is really for you.
Chemists in biotechnology generally work in a laboratory setting in an industrial or academic environment. A single laboratory may be involved in 5–10 projects, and the scientists will have varying degrees of responsibility for each project. Teamwork is vital, and it is unusual to work alone on tasks. Most chemists in biotech positions say they work more than 40 hours a week, although they add that this is largely an individual choice and not necessarily required.
Most biotechnologists today began their careers working for small, innovative biotech companies that were founded by scientists. However, as the field has developed, many major drug companies added or acquired biotech divisions. Chemical companies with large agricultural chemical businesses also have substantial biotech labs. Biotech companies are generally located near universities. The industry began in a few major areas such as San Francisco and Boston (the traditional homes of biotech firms), Chicago, Denver/Boulder, San Diego, Seattle, and Research Triangle Park, NC, but there are now biotech companies all across the country.
Biotechnologists use critical thinking, careful observation, problem-solving, deductive reasoning, and analytical skills to design experiments and make sense of the results
Specific laboratory skills, such as DNA manipulation, care of laboratory animals, cell cultures, etc., may be required for different jobs in this field. An awareness of and ability to follow Good Laboratory Practices (GLPs), as well as U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations.
Teamwork is essential; therefore, respect for the contributions of others and the willingness to contribute are important
Because biotechnology involves the intersection of so many different scientific fields, a broad scientific background is helpful
Written and Oral Skills
Written and oral communication skills are important in order to convey findings and learn from the experiences of others
Since many biotech companies were started by academic scientists who want to commercialize their discoveries, these companies initially have the feel of an academic research laboratory. There is a hierarchy of research assistants, scientists, and senior scientists, with each respectively having a higher academic degree. Many biotechnologists work as research assistants for a few years before returning to school for an advanced degree.
As in any industrial career for a scientist, there comes a point where they must make a decision whether to remain a research bench scientist or move into the business side of the company. Staying close to the lab may entail higher levels of scientific research. A more managerial track could include supervising more people, developing overall research plans and sales/marketing strategies, building alliances, and formulating or implementing regulatory affairs processes and procedures. Depending on your personal strengths and goals, there are a wide variety of different opportunities.
Biotechnology employment is increasing faster than many other fields, but it is still a relatively small field. As the field matures, there is more demand for production and scale-up to make biologics in bulk and thus more demand for chemical engineers with a biological background. There is also a growing demand for chemists with a four-year undergraduate degree to sell and market these new products.
The highly interdisciplinary nature of biotechnology means that while it is important to have a strong expertise in your own discipline, you must have a broad background as well. The ability to work well with others, especially with those in different scientific fields, will go a long way toward ensuring success in this field. You must also be able to see the big picture and accept that you may work for years on a project before achieving measurable results.