Biotech is a very broad term that refers to the use of biological systems to develop new products and processes. Biotech is part of everyday life from the food we eat to the medicines we take but it is also essential in the battle to reverse climate change and protect our environment. Biotechnology has always existed but there may have never been such a challenging and exciting time to get involved.
What industries use biotech?
Biotech is used extensively in the pharmaceuticals industry where living organisms are utilised to discover and improve drugs, treatments and medical devices. An early use of biotech in the pharmaceuticals industry was the development of artificially generated human insulin in 1978 which replaced the use of animal insulin for the treatment of diabetes. GlaxoSmithKline has recently announced huge investment in developing cell-based cancer therapies (FT) and in 2005 Pfizer opened a €1.8bn biotech plant in Dublin. Biotech is huge for big pharma and companies are investing heavily. Joining the front line of pharmaceutical research is a career choice that is both rewarding and secure.
Biotech is often associated with agriculture and the polarising debates on genetically modified food. Biotech’s part in agricultural processes has a long history and although there is undoubtedly controversy surrounding some aspects of the field every company should be taken on its own merits. Familiarise yourself with the debates (scientific, political, economic and social) and make an informed decision. Biotech in agriculture is not limited to genetic engineering. It also includes the development of vaccines for both plants and livestock; identifying molecular markers for selection and breeding; and molecular diagnostics for precise identification of plant and animal diseases and defects. Read more about agricultural biotech here.
Biotechnology is also at the forefront of much climate science debate. There is an enormous challenge to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, reduce methane and other toxic fumes polluting the air and create a world that can sustain a growing population through new fuels and food sources. Global level planning requires expertise and innovation and biotechnologists have a key role to play.
What qualifications do I need?
For the majority of jobs in biotechnology you will need at least a BSc and probably a Masters too. If you are looking for undergraduate courses a few top universities offer a BSc specifically in Biotechnology including Manchester, Nottingham and Aberdeen, however a degree in Biological Science is a great route in too and will put you on course for a MSc in Biotechnology. Try to select a course with a placement year or at least one that offers good hands-on experience. Employers are keen to see practical experience outside of a university setting.
What other skills should I develop?
The biotechnology community is not huge, especially once you’ve narrowed down to your particular sector. Networking is really important. Make sure you attend conferences, seminars and expos. Hone your specialisms so that you can impress your skill set on people at these events.
Really explore the avenues available. Push yourself to experience different settings, different environments, different working styles so that you know where you excel. Well-qualified, keen and dedicated biotechnologists are in demand – remember that when you go out to apply for jobs.
We always tell candidates about the importance of soft skills because our clients tell us they’re needed. In biotechnology you may well need to present your findings to a board of directors or even a crowd at a conference. Having the communication skills to work effectively within a team and articulate research compellingly are really valuable skills in biotechnology.
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