There a host of careers in healthcare where you will be playing a crucial role in the diagnosis, prevention and cure of disease and illness, helping people across the world. A career in medicine doesn’t just mean ‘become a doctor’.
Follow a career in biology and you can make a difference. You could play a key part in diagnosing, treating and curing diseases.
Solving the disease puzzle
There are many diseases, such as smallpox, that used to kill millions of people but now, due to medical intervention, are now no longer a problem. But there are still a huge host of diseases that we cannot cure, such as cancer or malaria.
In order to try and cure diseases biologists must first understand one of the most complex systems on earth: the body. They need to understand what the disease is doing to interrupt the body’s pathways and try of think of ways to fix it. This takes years of carefully planned experiments that will at first happen in test tubes before moving onto more complicated organisms.
There are many different types of biologist that investigate the body and disease from different angles. For example, in malaria research, there will be parasitologists studying the lifecycle of the malaria parasite within the mosquito and the human body and thinking of ways to interrupt this cycle. Entomologists will be investigating ways to control the mosquito population. Immunologists will be looking at how the body’s immune system defends itself against the parasite and trying to find a way to help it fight the parasite more effectively or to develop a vaccine to prevent infection. Pharmacologists will be working to develop new drugs to cure the symptoms of disease or stop the parasite causing disease. Epidemiologists will be tracking disease patterns and monitoring the success of control measures.
Medicine on the wards
There are a host of biologists that work to diagnose and treat patients. Pathologists work in laboratories examining samples of blood and tissue for signs of disease that might indicate what’s wrong with a patient and how best to treat them – pathology is involved with 70% of diagnoses made in the NHS.
Microbiologists identify the cause of infectious disease and determine which drugs (antibiotics) will work against the infecting organism. They also work in infection control and carry out surveillance projects (for example screening staff and admitted patients for carriage of MRSA).
Molecular biologists test for genetic diseases and provide genetic counselling to help couples make reproductive decisions. Haematologists test blood for transfusion and clinical biochemists match donors and recipients for organ transplantation. Pathologists can work in morgues or with forensics teams figuring out how someone died.
Research scientists work in laboratories to develop new technologies to diagnose the cause of disease more accurately and quickly (and cheaply!) and to develop new drugs. Biologists also consider issues such as how diseases may evolve to change the way they are transmitted or develop resistance to treatment. They work with governments agencies to produce guidelines and preparedness plans for potential future threats.
Developing new medicines
As biologists begin to build up a better picture of what a disease is doing to the body they can think of ways to stop it – cure – or better still stop the disease developing in the first place – prevention. Either way you are going to need a new medicine. Pharmacologists are a type of biologist that investigate new medicines and help determine how they help the body fight the disease. One of the most famous pharmacologists, Sir James Black, invented the beta blocker that helps people combat heart disease by increasing the width of their blood vessels, to reduce the pressure and prevent them having a heart attack.
It takes, on average, 10-15 years to take a new medicine from the lab to the shelves of your local pharmacy. This is because all new medicines need to be rigorously safety checked – especially when the first humans try the drugs in clinical trials. Toxicologists will assess the new drug for any potential toxic side effects and think of ways to make them safer.
Where do these biologists work?
Medical biologists work in a variety of environments. They could be based in the lab of a hospital, university, research institute or biotech company or perhaps work in an industrial lab for a pharmaceutical company. Investigating tropical diseases could lead you to taking your lab to the rainforest to collect samples!
There are also jobs that involve communicating to the public, school students, journalists and the government.
Job titles you might see for biologists working in healthcare
Physiologist, epidemiologist, medical microbiologist, clinical biochemist, cytogeneticist, pharmacologist, toxicologist, haematologist, histopathologist, immunologist, virologist, gastroenterology technician, pathologist, biomedical scientist.
What you might study
Physiology, immunology, microbiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, neurobiology, pathology, pharmacology, endocrinology.
Becoming a Biologist – Degrees and Careers in Biology (Royal Society of Biology)
Beyond medicine (Future Morph)
Biomedical scientist (Prospects)
Clinical biochemist (NHS Careers)
Drug discovery (Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry)
Immunologist (British Society for Immunology)
Medical microbiologist (NHS Careers)
Pathologist (The Royal College of Pathologists)
Pharmacologist (British Pharmacological Society)