Careers in the Biomedical Sciences
“People entering the biomedical sciences now are doing so at the best possible time,” exclaims biochemist, Charles Russell Middaugh, Iroquois and Arapahoe, PhD, Higuchi Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of Kansas. “The field is exploding. Our knowledge has reached the point where we can really begin to think about doing important things that will directly impact disease processes. And we can do these things rationally. Prior to this we’ve done things more or less by trial and error. That’s starting to change. Some new cancer drugs, for example, have been designed based on an understanding of what happens to a cell when it becomes a cancer cell. These new drugs are among the most effective cancer drugs we’ve ever seen. I think we’re going to see many more exciting developments. There have never been greater opportunities.”
In the past few decades, scientists in such biomedical fields as biochemistry, endocrinology, genetics, hematology, immunology, microbiology, neuroscience, and pharmacology have made unprecedented advances in our knowledge of the nature and cause of many diseases. They have also discovered basic processes and through this understanding they have devised strategies that are helpful in preventing, diagnosing, and treating many diseases.
One of the exciting projects from which scientists will continue learning for decades is the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003. The project’s ambitious goal was to sequence the 3 billion nucleotide base pairs, constituting the structure of the 20,000-25,000 genes found in human DNA. The Human Genome Project holds potential promise for human health. The new knowledge base resulting from this project is greatly expanding our understandings of genetics and is revolutionizing biology and medicine.
In the not too distant future, with knowledge available regarding an individual’s genetic makeup, medical intervention for both prevention and treatment will be able to be more specific, precise, and successful. And with the increased power of medicine to predict susceptibility to specific diseases, people with knowledge of their vulnerabilities will be able to alter their life styles and take other preventive measures.
American Indian and Alaska Native biomedical researchers who want to focus on diseases that negatively affect their people have cause for hope. For example, Middaugh notes, “Diabetes and alcoholism are two diseases that we’re beginning to understand in a much deeper way, both biomedically and psychologically, so the chances of being able to impact these diseases in a therapeutic way is definitely increasing.”
As with many groundbreaking projects, the Human Genome Project and related projects, particularly the Human Genome Diversity Project, have the potential for being beneficial and/or harmful to humankind. For example, people worry that genetic testing that identifies inherited diseases might result in some people being denied jobs and medical insurance. Indigenous people who have been exploited over and over in the name of science worry they will be exploited once again.
In the Autumn 1998 issue of Winds of Change, Debra Harry, Northern Paiute, and the late Frank Dukepoo, Hopi and Laguna, voiced some of the widespread concerns about the Human Genome Diversity Project and pointed to the need for Indian people to be armed with “awareness, knowledge and choices.” This advice is still relevant and argues for the importance of indigenous biomedical scientists being involved in decision-making in the biomedical sciences.
Research and Development
Scientists who conduct research usually work in laboratories equipped with sophisticated computers and other high-tech equipment needed for their work, such as, electron microscopes, fluorescence flow cytometers, high-speed centrifuges, cell counting equipment with a general range of spectophotometers, and DNA sequencers.
Most scientists engage in “pure,” basic research to advance fundamental biological knowledge for its own sake, before we can be sure what the “payoff” in better health will be. Typically scientists do this type of research in medical schools, general university research facilities, and government laboratories. They submit grant proposal to fund their projects. Private foundations, private industry, and federal government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, contribute to the support of scientists and their teams whose proposals have the potential to advance new ideas or processes.
Other scientists do applied research. They use knowledge provided by basic research to create new strategies as well as practical products, such as screening tests, medications, and treatment devices. Usually these scientists work in private industries, such as the pharmaceutical industry, but they can also work in other settings. Often people doing applied science in private industry have less autonomy than basic researchers because they need to focus on market-driven goals and products.
Biomedical research also takes place in hospitals and clinics. For example, once treatments are approved for human trials, scientists work with clinicians and others in setting up protocols for providing the treatment in clinical trials and for monitoring and evaluating the results.
Biomedical scientists play a pivotal role within the health care system, because they are responsible for analyzing and interpreting the various causes of disease. People with advanced degrees in the biomedical sciences work in laboratories, hospitals, other clinical institutions and “outside” laboratories. They direct the analysis of samples of patients’ blood, urine, tumors, and other tissues and report their findings to the patients’ clinicians. Depending on the scope of work of a particular lab, biomedical scientists do serologic testing for HIV and other infectious disease, blood typing or genetic testing, tumor and other histological evaluations, and identify infectious microorganisms. Some biomedical scientists are involved both in clinically-based care and research.
Some scientists teach in medical schools and other health professions educational programs, including programs in veterinary medicine. Doctoral-level anatomists, biochemists, endocrinologists, geneticists, microbiologists, physiologists, pharmacologists and pathologists are among the scientists who teach health professionals.
In the past, health professions students took courses in the “basic” (biomedical) sciences before beginning their clinical education. These courses were taught entirely by biomedical scientists who had little understanding of patient care.
Now, in a growing number of schools in the health professions, biomedical scientists collaborate with clinicians in team teaching courses that help students learn biomedical science in the context of patient care. In the first year of medical school, for example, clinician and biomedical science tutors present their small groups of students with real patient problems, such as a woman with a headache. In trying to understand the origins and nature of the headache, students begin to learn the science that is relevant to this problem. Many biomedical scientists and clinicians, who collaborate in this problem-based learning, report being enriched by this interdisciplinary contact.
In addition to teaching health professions students, doctoral level biomedical scientists teach in undergraduate and graduate biomedical sciences programs. Educators with backgrounds and degrees in the biomedical sciences also teach in high schools and other institutions of learning.
Other Career Areas
Some of the other careers available to people with advanced degrees in biomedical science include medical and scientific journalism and biotechnology. After doing research with an institution or project, some scientists may be asked to plan and administer programs for testing new products. Some may work in sales. Other biomedical scientists may test and inspect food, drugs, and other products. Successful scientists are asked to work as consultants to government and business.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is the late Roy Thomas, Ojibwa (1949-2004).