Skills needed to pursue a career in Biotechnology
The study of the natural world in all its glory is inherently a gigantic, and sometimes overwhelming, field. Consider even a small slice of this large metaphorical cake – biotechnology as a field is large, varied, and ever-growing. In essence, biotechnology focuses on making use of research to develop new techniques to improve biological systems and fight diseases. If that little description is enough to get you excited, there's a good chance you might want to consider a career in this field. And if you do, there will be certain skills you may want to pick up along the way.
Scientific and laboratory skills
Biotechnologists are typically very specialised in the work they carry out. Having a degree in fields like Biotechnology or Genetic Engineering usually means you'll be spending most of your time working in laboratories carrying out wet lab experiments, DNA sequencing, analysis, or drug design and use. As such, in university, biotechnology majors (along with other Life Science majors) typically spend more time working in laboratories than almost any other major. In addition, when the topic of research comes up, writing and reading papers also becomes a very important part of the conversation. Certain scientific skills are mandatory in order to read and write a paper.
Dr. Mohammed Kabir Uddin, Assistant Professor at NSU's Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, shares, "Molecular biology techniques, genetic engineering, bioprocessing and fermentation, along with expertise in biostatistics are all essential skills if you want to focus on Biotechnology. When it comes to working in labs, students should learn to think and communicate scientifically. Effective communication and collaboration are sometimes all you need to create a strong learning environment, and labs are great places to grow and learn new things."
Tahsinul Islam Aurko, a 23-year-old final-year student at NSU and an undergraduate research trainee at ICCDDR,B, says, "Theoretical knowledge is crucial at all steps. You also need to prepare yourself by reading papers, understanding the methods, and finally the discussions. In many cases, you need to be your own teacher, asking questions every step of the way."
Many who study biotechnology move on to pursue a life in academia, where they obtain a graduate degree and spend their time as professors in universities, carrying out tenures and working with students in research for further breakthroughs in science. Yet for many others, it is in the workplace where they find their calling. In Bangladesh, pharmaceutical companies are a particularly popular space for Biotechnology graduates. Regardless of the path they choose, biotechnologists can expect to spend long hours carrying out experiments and analysing problems scientifically.
Technical and programming skills
In today's rapidly evolving technological landscape, Biology combined with the heavy use of certain programming languages to analyse proteins, study experimental data, or compute large-scale simulations is rapidly becoming popular. While all of that sounds fancy already, it merely scratches the surface of what is possible when Biotechnology uses the power of Computer Science and Mathematics. As such, languages such as Python and R play a crucial role in Life Sciences.
Nayara Noor, a 23-year-old Microbiology graduate from BRAC University, shares her thoughts, "People should pay attention in statistics class and forget the myth that you don't need math when studying biology. Knowing about statistics and statistical methods is really important, especially R and SPSS since those come into play a lot later down the line."
Aanushka Tupur, a 21-year-old final-year student studying Bioinformatics and Biotechnology at AUW, says, "Some very common computational works such as phylogenetic tree generation and analysis, multiple sequence analysis, are all expected of both Bioinformaticians and Biotechnologists. Throughout my years, I've gotten to learn that while so much of Biotechnology is based on wet lab work, there are still loads in biotechnology that require some core functionality knowledge of computer science and bioinformatics. Programming languages are also very important, especially Python, but these are going to forever be a work in progress as you'll always have to work towards getting better at programming."
Communication and teamwork
No matter where you are in Life Sciences, effective communication is key. While this may be given in any working environment, the case is perhaps all the more important for Biotechnologists to be engaged in open communication and discussion. Studying the natural world and analysing the results produced by experiments is often not a task meant to be performed alone. Laboratories always work in groups, with the work being divided among scientists of different fields of interest.
Dr. Mohammed Kabir Uddin shares, "Laboratory research often involves teamwork and cooperation. My target is to always ensure effective communication between peers and then also in peer-to-mentor discussions. For research to see growth and success, this is obviously very important."
Another thing to note is that while as a scientist much of the work will be done independently, the results have to clearly conveyed to the rest of the team. This is where communication can be tricky, but also extremely crucial for any team.
Seemingly unrelated, yet very much a part of the ecosystem of Biotechnology, are all the skills we associate with business administration. According to an article by Susan Froshauer, start-ups in Biotechnology might just be the next big thing. And the best way to prepare oneself as an entrepreneur is to be an intellectually honest and ambitious person with a side of networking to ensure proper growth of the business.
Another important point by Susan is that the decision to start a career in Biotechnological entrepreneurship need not mean the end of any sort of research work. If anything, many contemporary start-ups value and make room for research, as this multidisciplinary approach is essential to develop and analyse drugs. Ultimately, much of what we learn retains a level of crossover between one field and another.
Froshauer, S. (2017). Careers at biotech start-ups and in entrepreneurship. CSH Perspectives.
Raian Abedin is a student at North South University.