Biotechnology is the application of biological organisms, systems, or processes by various industries to learning about the science of life and the improvement of the value of materials and organisms such as pharmaceuticals, crops, and livestock. It is a relatively new and fast-developing field that integrates knowledge from several traditional sciences: biochemistry, chemistry, microbiology, and chemical engineering.
The real future of biotechnology has more to do with chemistry than was ever imagined. Biotechnology depends on the ability to manipulate chemical structure. Opportunities are opening up for chemists across the biotechnology industry, offering the chance to work on the cutting edge of a dynamic and still largely developmental field.
Biotechnology is a source of great promise for innovations ranging from improving the diagnosis and treatment of hereditary diseases, to safer drugs, to more environmentally friendly herbicides and pesticides, to microbial processes to clean up the environment. Making these promises a reality requires rethinking some fundamental assumptions.
"Molecular biology has not given us everything that we thought it would," says Gary Kuroki, a chemist and research scientist at DNA Plant Technologies. "Companies are integrating the sciences, bringing new perspectives from chemistry, biochemistry, and genetics to tackle questions from as many angles as possible."
Blake Pepinsky, a group leader at Biogen, agrees. "When I started out, you could clone a new gene and it was automatically a product," he says. "Now, we need a better understanding of both biology and chemistry to discover new products." When the biotechnology industry started to reach this conclusion, more companies began hiring chemists than ever before.
"What we do," explains Mark Reynolds, a chemist and scientist who works on biotechnology drug development at Genentech, "is use biological products like peptides, DNA, and amino acids to develop a molecule that will bind to receptors in the human body. When these molecules bind to the receptor, they can turn it on or off. Having achieved this result, we can then make a new drug."
This process requires years of work and almost constant interaction between scientists, including peptide chemists, crystallographers, and molecular modeling specialists. "Everything is a team project," says Pepinsky. "It is unusual to work alone." Therefore, chemists in biotechnology must be able to work with others. Although a team brings together specialists, individuals must be well-rounded with a variety of skills. "The more skills you have, the more valuable you are to the company," says Kuroki.
Because biotechnology requires a grasp of many different scientific disciplines, chemists suggest starting in high school with courses in biology, chemistry, and genetics. In college, you can gain a sense of whether this area is for you by taking a good molecular biology course.
"In this business, you also have to be driven," Reynolds adds. "As a research scientist, you have to be a good chemist with good laboratory skills. And, you have to like what you are doing. I think this trait is what really determines an individual's success."
Although each company is structured differently, most biotechnology firms operate with a hierarchy of senior scientists, scientists, and research assistants. "With a bachelor's degree you can reach the level of scientist in a biotechnology lab, but it takes hard work and serious creativity," comments Reynolds.
"In my experience," says Kuroki, "you have to have a Ph.D. to advance in this field. A lot of ambitious research assistants stay one year and then go back to graduate school." Scientists with Ph.D.s follow a more creative career path in which the work they do is not much different from that of a scientist in an academic environment. In fact, many biotechnology companies were founded by academic scientists who took their projects out of universities and into a commercial environment.
"I personally prefer being in a commercial company," says Kuroki. "I am surrounded by dedicated, intellectual, and motivated people. For all the advantages of academe, it can be isolating. In industry, you have more opportunity to interact with other people."
However, a career in industry may mean making a decision early on about whether your career will follow a research or a more administrative track. On a research track, a scientist spends more time at the bench, advancing to higher levels of scientific research. A managerial track can involve job functions from running the laboratory to developing the company's overall business and marketing plans. Opportunities vary considerably depending on the company and perhaps, more often, on the personality and goals of the individual scientist.
Biotechnology, in the broadest sense, involves the use of living organisms or cell processes to make useful products. To date, the major thrusts of the biotechnology industry have been in drug development, human and animal nutrition, agricultural chemicals, and environmental protection. The cloning of insulin used to treat diabetics was one of the earliest biotechnology breakthroughs in human health care. In the future, it is hoped that biotechnology will have solutions for treating, if not curing, genetic disorders. In the field of agricultural chemicals, biotech scientists are focusing on developing plants that produce their own insecticides. If this goal is achieved, it may be possible to save many plants from destruction. In another area, biotechnologists are using selective breeding processes to develop fruits, vegetables, and grains that have more favorable attributes such as higher yields, longer shelf life, and better taste.
Chemists in biotechnology generally work in a laboratory atmosphere not unlike an academic environment. The laboratory may be involved in five to ten projects, and the scientists have varying degrees of responsibility for each project. Teamwork is a vital part of the biotechnology industry, and it is unusual to work alone. Most chemists in biotechnology say they work more than 40 hours a week, although they add this is largely an individual choice and not necessarily required.
Most scientists in biotechnology work for small, innovative biotechnology companies that were founded relatively recently by scientists. However, as the field develops, many major drug companies have added biotechnology divisions. Chemical companies with large agricultural chemical businesses also have substantial biotechnology labs. Biotechnology companies are generally located near universities. The business to date has been regional, although this is changing as more pharmaceutical and agricultural chemical companies across the country start up biotechnology divisions. Still, biotechnology firms are largely located in six to seven major cities. These include San Francisco and Boston (the traditional homes of biotechnology firms), Chicago, Denver/Boulder, San Diego, Seattle, and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.
A chemistry student interested in entering this field should keep in mind the interdisciplinary nature of biotechnology. While it is important to have a strong background in your own discipline, scientists must have the mental flexibility to pick up and incorporate other approaches. Most work is done in teams, making strong communication and interpersonal skills vital to success in this field.
Although individuals have advanced in biotechnology with only a bachelor's degree, most scientists say it is necessary to have a Ph.D. to be given the responsibility to do creative work. Many bachelor's candidates work at a biotechnology firm as a research assistant for one to two years before pursuing an advanced degree.
Opportunities for chemists in biotechnology are undoubtedly growing as the field matures and branches outside molecular biology. Although jobs in biotechnology will probably never be as plentiful as they were in the last ten years, the employment outlook is still considered very good. As more entrepreneurs begin new businesses and more existing companies advance in the biotechnology field, the demand for biotechnologists will increase. In addition, as more biotechnology products now in development reach the phase when they are ready for market, there will be increasing demand for chemical engineers to work on some of the production and scale-up problems of making biotechnology products in bulk, as well as bachelor's chemists for sales and marketing.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization
1625 K Street NW Suite 1100
Washington DC 20006-1621
Get as much background in biology, chemistry, and genetics as you can. All these disciplines are critical in biotechnology, and being well-rounded only works to your benefit. Lab experience is also important. Most companies have summer student programs and students profit from this experience by finding out if this is a field they might enjoy. The earlier you participate in this type of experience, the more advantages you will reap.