Most of what is being done by biotechnologists takes place within the confines of company or university laboratories. However, the impact of this growing science is potentially so broad, there is a need for many types of professionals who never are found at traditional work benches.
Support from experts who do not have scientific and engineering skills is vital to the continued flourishing of biotechnology. As with other fields of interest, it takes a variety of disciplines to "keep the wheels turning." The demand will widen for managers, marketing personnel, salespeople, lawyers, individuals adept at regulatory matters, and financial analysts.
These career areas are even newer than the recently recognized science of biotechnology. Therefore, the educational underpinnings that prepare people for these pursuits are also in their infancy. There will be more development of specific curricula and courses as the need for them increases.
Find out more about some of these employment opportunities by reading the answers to questions posed to several qualified professionals. Their responses are backed by experience in their biotechnological specializations, and you will gain insight into what these job categories are and how you can qualify for them.
Q. Is there a need to let the public know what biotechnology is doing?
A. Certainly. Biotechnology is a field about which most people are not well informed. Some, in fact, are somewhat fearful of it. There are some opponents who are not in favor of the technology and who try to trade on the fears of the public.
Q. Specifically, what types of fears are we concerned with here?
A. Oh, that somehow, in the business of genetic engineering or engineering genes from one species into another species, some awful accident will happen, and some monster will be created or something will be let loose into the environment that won't be able to be placed under control.
Then, down the road, people speculate about human gene therapy and hypothesize about Brave New World-sort of alterations of the human species. The fact is that the industry is extremely heavily regulated by the government and also by the NIH and the scientific community itself. There are all kinds of guide lines for what kind of research should and should not
be done, so there really isn't anything about which to be concerned. But, there is that group of people that has a lack of understanding. I think many of the products of biotechnology will end up with medical therapeutics or agriculture.
Q. Will you elaborate about how we will benefit from biotechnology?
A. Well, I think the end result of agricultural biotechnology is foods of better quality, foods that, perhaps, are cheaper, because they are easier to produce; foods that are easier to process; foods that will store on the shelf better; and even foods that are improved. There's research, for example, going on in increasing the protein content in everything from potatoes to some of the Third World subsistence crops like cassava, sorghum, and things like that. All this means is that the food is being altered in some minor way. I mean, a potato will Opportunities in Biotechnology Careers Still be a potato, but it's reasonable to assume that the public is going to want to know and to be assured that nothing fundamental has been changed about the food being consumed.
Even if some minor genetic alteration were made, it will prompt a need for a tremendous amount of education. People are essentially conservative and take a while to get used to new things. There's a big need for communication.
Q. On that point, has enough been done? Where are we on a spectrum of one to ten in terms of communicating to the public?
A. This technology is different from others in that the industries that are involved in it, the companies that are involved in it, have, from the first, been quite open. For example, there is a difference between what happened during the chemical revolution of the fifties and now.
Then we saw the development of new pesticides, weed and insect killers, and all that. There was practically no public communication on that. Companies were just going to make the product, sell it, and move on to another product.
For ten to fifteen years, almost since the technology was developed, there's been a lot of public discussion. Most of the companies involved in it, particularly the small, entrepreneurial ones, put a lot of effort into public communication. They recognize that the government has to understand biotechnology in order to permit research to proceed. The public has to understand it. The users, like farmers, have to understand it, So there has been increasing communication, but that's not to say that there's been enough.
Q. Would you say the first priority is to get the public involved, then government? Because government is re ally just an arm of the public.
A. That's true. But, of course, the government regulates it, and, I mean, the regulators regulate, and Congress regulates the regulators....
Q. And the public regulates the Congress.
A. The public tells the Congress what to think and what to do. It's all part of the spectrum.
Q. Do biotechnology firms have internal PR departments, or do they all use outside agencies?
A. Either way. They work through their own people or through their outside consulting agencies.
Q. Are there many public relations agencies that are involved with biotechnology?
A. No. There are some small specialty agencies that you'll find here and there. Some of the larger firms have been tempted to establish biotechnology groups with varying degrees of success. I would say that, by far, we have the largest biotechnology group. We have twenty people in the firm devoted solely to biotechnology communications. The problem, of course, is that with the exception of the large firms, most of the companies are small, start-up, research-oriented firms with no products yet to sell. Therefore, they have no income. They are using venture capital and they are earmarking the proceeds from stock offerings to fund their research. They don't have a lot of money left over to devote to public education.
Q. Do you believe that public relations are crucial to the existence of biotechnology?
A. Oh, I don't think there's any question about it. It could be internal, you know, a company's own PR shop, or the firm could go to an agency. There isn't any question about the need to demystify, if you will, this technology and to reveal it for what it is. It is really a pretty routine, straight-line continuation of classical genetics, that is, crop breeding and animal breeding. It should be made clear that there's nothing new and dramatic and dangerous here. The government has said that, every responsible scientist you can find says there's no unique hazards present here, but somebody has to put that word out.
Q. If it isn't put out, what happens?
A. Then people will shy away from the products. It leaves the field open to those people who are afraid of anything that's new. Also, it leaves the field open to the scaremongers.
Q. How does someone go about getting into the field of public relations in biotechnology?
A. I think that it would be necessary and certainly useful to have some background in science or some degree of comfort, at least, with science and technology. This is a technology that's fairly intricate. It features a lot of big words and a lot of jargon. You have to have some basis in science, which you can learn by coming in at an entry level. We have people here, entry-level employees, who didn't know biotechnology from football when they came in and have learned it from the ground up. But, the main line here is having a back ground in the sciences. I'm a former science writer. Others here have worked for companies in the field in their internal PR departments.
Q. Are you saying, then, that you, as an employer, would look for a man or woman with a degree in science?
A. No, it doesn't really have to be a degree in science. But, I would say having taken some courses in science would be advisable. We look for someone who knows biology. Biotechnology is basically a biological science. A job candidate should show some experience working with a firm that is somehow involved with medical research or agricultural research or biotechnology research. That certainly helps. However, all this can be learned,
Q. How strongly do you look for someone with a journalistic background?
A. That kind of work history is really not necessary. I'm the only one in our division with any journalistic background. There's a larger consideration, I think. Probably the greatest weakness in the public relations industry and maybe the greatest weakness in our society as a whole is the lack of the ability to write. There are not that many people who learn how to write. I guess it's just a lost art. It's not taught. So somewhere you have to have learned how to write or at least have the ability to learn how to write. Journalism is, obviously, a fine training ground, but the ability to communicate depends heavily on your ability to put down ten sentences that are coherent and track one to the other.
Q. What could a public relations specialist in biotechnology expect to earn? What type of broad range of income is involved?
A. Public relations is a well-paying field. I think by and large it pays better than journalism. Someone with a good deal of experience can earn six figures without too much difficulty.
Q. Are the clients willing to pay, since they are very conscious of the need for public relations?
A. They are willing, but it's more a function of ability because, as I said, most of the good science and good technology is coming out of the small firms, which do not yet have products. They're burning up all their money in research. We represent a number of them. They've got to make sure that their funds last long enough to get the product to the marketplace. They just simply can't afford major public relations activity.
I think a breakthrough is coming with the larger companies. Others will start doing what larger companies are doing. So I would say that public relations funding is going to loosen up as the big companies decide that it's something that needs to be done in advance of marketing products. Building a climate of public acceptance is as much a part of the business picture as are research and development.
Q. What should a person do to prepare for a sales career in biotechnology? Should one take marketing courses along with those in biotechnology, or should one emphasize marketing in school and learn biotechnology on the job?
A. I'm not sure I can tell you which way would be better. This would vary depending upon which part of the industry one was entering. In either case, it would be good to not necessarily have a thorough technical knowledge, but a good working one to be able to make customers comfortable with the technology.
Remember there's a certain apprehension on the part of the public. People don't understand biotechnology. Many believe the false image of the industry that is spread by some. To make biotechnology successful commercially, we in the industry will have to help people be at ease with it. This partially is the job of salespeople, who must be able to converse in a credible fashion with clientele,
Q. What potential income awaits a marketing specialist in the biotechnology field?
A. I'm probably not the best person to be able to tell you that. I'm in the part of an industry that has geared itself to the chemical and chemical pesticide business. I make no more in my area than my counterparts in other parts of the industry.
When you look at the smaller, venture capital companies in biotechnology, you'll find a higher degree of risk associated with their jobs, because the survival of the firms is often not secure. Because of this, they pay biotechnologists, especially experienced ones, more money than others would get at the more established corporations.
As time goes on, the sky could be the limit in terms of potential income from sales in biotechnology. Here, there isn't the same heavy competition that earmarks marketing in other, long-time industries.
University Biotechnology Professor
Q. What is the state of biotechnology in schools right now?
A. Well, most of the time sciences start in university centers and often trickle down to precollege areas before they become an industrial science. In the area of biotechnology, because of its great potential in a variety of areas, the transition from academia to industry was very rapid. I think that's, perhaps, a sign of our times. The net result, of course, is we frankly do not have enough sufficiently trained people, not only at the technician level, but at the Ph.D. level. For sure, we do not have enough teachers who are trained to teach in this area.
Q. If a person were planning a career in biotechnology and wanted to teach it, what would be the best route to take?
A. I think a person should follow the same path that trains a biology or chemistry teacher. I don't want to get into a debate whether you should get a B.S. in biology and then add an education degree or start as a science educator and get advanced courses in biology or chemistry. This has been argued for decades and will continue to be. I should point out that two of my degrees are in science education and two are in science, so I know both sides of the fence.
But whatever path one would take to end up being a biology or chemistry teacher, one would continue to supplement his or her education through courses in immunology, molecular biology, and so on. The term biotechnology is an umbrella. It's almost like saying modem life sciences from my point of view. I don't think it's necessary to go in and take biotechnology I and II. They may not even exist. But if you've taken molecular biology I and II and immunology I and II and fermentation I and II and separation technology I and II and biochemistry I and II, you're very versatile in biotechnology.
The inclination would be for present and potential teachers, as they're developing their biology or chemistry educational backgrounds, to proceed and take as many basic science courses in the areas as possible.
Q. Do you recommend any professional/commercial experience before you go to the classroom?
A. I happen to think that someone who is a teacher already would benefit vastly by taking a course, obviously, like the one I run in the summer, as opposed to going and trying to pretend to be a scientist in a matter of eight weeks. I know there are programs around the country that believe just the opposite, and I respect them. I think there should be room for honest people with different opinions.
But let me give you my rationale. If somebody walks into a lab, be it commercial or academic, with no experience, he or she won't get educated in a matter of eight weeks, unless the lab is ready to shut down and give that person an unbalanced amount of time. Frankly, most biotechnology labs are under a lot of pressure to produce, and they do not have the time to do that. So if what I'm saying is true, the person will end up doing one, two, or three skills, often under the guidance of someone who is relatively junior in the laboratory. The novice, therefore, will not get the vast theoretical background that he or she needs. But to me, the single most important thing that a teacher does is teach. I view the teacher as the conduit of knowledge to the student. In order to facilitate that, our thought was to take the four weeks and build into them those aspects that we know will work in the classroom. The teacher in the fall can then already be reproducing what he or she learned in the summer,
In the four weeks of our instruction, we structure a core of about twelve or thirteen experiments. By the time our students are through with the four weeks, they have a good command of the theory and practice of these twelve or thirteen experiments.
Q. What's the prognosis in terms of money to be earned?
A. I think we know, unfortunately, in the United States very few precollege or college teachers are rich as a result of their activities in education.
I suppose if one has a good command of biotechnology, he or she may get some recognition in the community that a teacher should really deserve. I think the individual will probably be a centerpiece at the PTA, where he or she will be talking about genetic mutations or how the experiment that you demonstrated to your class or at the PTA can be a diagnostic procedure. I think there's more glory than money involved here.
The important thing is what teachers take to the class room and how many of our youngsters are going to get excited because of them and go into biotechnology.
Q. Do you foresee more school systems and/or universities picking up on the need to teach biotechnology?
A. Yes. My department, until recently, was biochemistry. It is called biochemistry and molecular biology, because the four new faculty members are practicing certain aspects of biotechnology. The position in industry and academia, by definition, has to grow. Any department in a university or small college that is a biochemistry department or microbiology department or anatomy department is really a basic science department. The biology departments and chemistry departments invariably will have representation from different aspects of biotechnology.
Q. And what about on the secondary level?
A. Two things I think are very important when one talks about educating teachers. I'd like to go back to your question about putting a teacher in a lab in industry. Industry would, I think, serve education much better if it were to financially help programs that gear toward education. We should not rape the educational system. Chances are the best teachers will end up in industry. It would be a shame if our best teachers left class rooms for the higher pay of business.
Q. Do you specialize in biotechnology?
A. We tend to, but we're not limited to that. It's certainly where we have expertise.
Q. Did you take any specific courses in school that would direct you into the biotechnology field?
A. Yes. I started out in science. I had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and I was an academic researcher running a lab in a university for a number of years before I even contemplated law school. So I came into the field from out of science into law.
Q. Is that the normal way one would approach the subject?
A. There are so few people in this particular area that there's no set route. My personal belief is that the people who do best in the field are people who have advanced degrees in the technology, because its cutting edge is complex. People, who come out, even with an undergraduate degree in science, are a little bit behind when it comes to dealing with the scientists who are doing the work. You've got to be able to understand them in order to do good patent work.
Q. Do you consider yourself a lawyer first and a scientist second or equal in both areas?
A. I'm really more of a lawyer now. It's close to equal. I try to go to both kinds of meetings. I go to scientific meetings to keep abreast of the developments in science, and I go to legal meetings to stay abreast with what's happening in the legal area. I do both.
Q. What would be your job description? How do you describe what you do? Do people approach you?
A. Some do. That's usually what happens, because they know what services we have to offer. They approach us with their needs to patent inventions, and that could be persons anywhere from existing corporations to new start-ups. Usually we talk directly to the scientist or the inventor. Less frequently, we deal with something written that they've already produced or some combination of those things.
Q. Is it important for you to speak the scientific language when you fill out papers for the patent office? Do you have to be very scientifically specific?
A. The patent applications should be written in terms that make sense to the scientific community, those who judge them, and other laypeople that may be called upon to read and understand them as well.
Q. So you have to be able to "translate" scientific terminology into layperson's language.
A. Yes. What we're really doing is translating from a scientific context into a patent context. It's not simplifying or popularizing, particularly, but it's different from technical writing in the sense that you're kind of bearing two different audiences in mind at the same time. There'll be a section of the patent that describes in general terms what it's about and what its significance is. Also, there will be a section that is really written for the scientist and a description of what it is. This looks very much like the materials and method section of a scientific paper.
Q. You alluded before to the fact that there are very few of your kind around. Are you in a wide open field?
A. I would say so. As far as I can tell, there's a demand. A few years ago, there used to be a call for people who could hold themselves out to having any knowledge about biology. I would say the demand is not quite that urgent now, but I would say there's still a demand for well-qualified people. This is especially true in corporate patent departments.
Q. Do you envision law schools introducing specific courses in this area, or will one still have to be somewhat dually oriented in terms of biotechnology/patent law education?
A. I think one will have to be dually oriented. I would like to see a time when law schools would sort of take on the job of dealing with law-science related issues in a broad context. There are actually very few law schools that have patent courses.
Q. In other words, the patent field itself is somewhat sparse in terms of personnel?
A. Yes. It's really pretty specialized and you have to point toward it and either go to one of those schools where they teach a number of courses, or you have to make an effort to pick it up outside of your regular law school curriculum.