Where do I go with biology?

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Date: Sept. 2004
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,523 words

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Rebecca Hartman was about to give up. It was late at night, and the California fish and game warden was growing tired while searching through boxes at Los Angeles International Airport. But then she cut open one last box and there it was: a small leopard shark swimming around in a bag of water.

Hartman had interrupted a crime in progress--shipping leopard sharks out of state is illegal. She followed the shipment back to the suppliers, put a stop to their criminal activity, and made sure all the leopard sharks were freed.

Before working as a fish and game warden, Hartman studied marine biology at California State University at Long Beach. Like many others, she found that a degree in biology can lead to some exciting career options. "Most people think that the only thing they can do with biology is go to medical school," says Richard Niesenbaum, associate professor and head of the biology department at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. "Although medicine can be a wonderful career path, biology offers many other options. Marine biologist, genetic engineer, environmental scientist, and medical researcher are among the many other possibilities."

It's true. A background in biology, or life sciences, can set you up with a world of options. An explosion of new knowledge has led to a growing array of possible career paths: conducting research in tropical rain forests; developing new sources of food; scuba diving as a nature photographer; checking out life-forms in volcanoes and hot springs; cozying up to reptiles; protecting creatures living in wetlands. In these and other areas--ranging from drug research to patent law to landscape architecture--biology grads are making their marks.


Biology can lead to a career working with animals, either in their own habitats or in controlled environments. After earning a bachelor's degree in zoology from the University of Maryland, Beth Fitzpatrick became a rain forest technician at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, home to more than 10,500 animals. In this job she works with all the animals in the rain forest exhibit, including two-toed sloths, sun conures (small parrots), and poison dart frogs. Fitzpatrick feeds and trains the animals, cleans out their habitats, and provides the creatures with the best care possible.

"I learn new information all the time," states Fitzpatrick, "and I work with some really amazing animals."

Fitzpatrick has always enjoyed being outdoors and working with animals, so she felt that a life sciences degree would be the right choice for her. She also says she likes the options biology offers--"Field work, research, animal care, education, and so many other things!"


For Tony Stefater, a biochemistry and molecular biology major at Centre College in Danville, Ky., the main appeal of a science career is the chance to solve problems.

"To me, scientific research is just like working intricate puzzles, whether that's describing new bio-chemical pathways or developing new drugs," he says. "What could be a better career than solving puzzles that can change our basic understanding and, in the case of medical research, make lives better and longer?"

After graduation, Stefater plans to pursue a career in academic medicine. To qualify, he will need to earn a doctorate. His goal is to run a major laboratory and help find cures for diseases. Although his plan sounds ambitious, Stefater is already on the road to success. In his sophomore year, he won a 2004 Goldwater Scholarship, a prestigious national science award.

Stefater says many students have the wrong idea about studying biology. "Some people think it's all memorizing facts, but that's not true," he says. "In the end, real science is about original thought, not memorization."


The development of new drugs is an especially promising area. That's the career track for Elizabeth Renken, who serves as a research coordinator at Arizona's Rowpar Pharmaceuticals. In this role, she helps new drug products gain government approval.

"I like the interaction I have with people from various scientific disciplines," she says. "One day I may be coordinating a laboratory project with a microbiologist or a pharmacologist; the next day I may be working with a periodontist or physician."

Renken prepared for her career by completing an unusual master's degree program in applied biosciences and business at the University of Arizona. The program unites science with business courses and an internship to help students get ahead in biology-based careers.


Some biology careers involve working daytime hours in labs or offices, but others are not so tightly structured.

"What I like best is that I make my own hours," says Hartman, the California fish and game warden. "We have to work 40 hours a week, but whether we work them day or night, and how many hours at a time, is completely up to us," she says. "And any place there is wildlife is my 'office.'"

Hartman also enjoys the variety her job offers. She might work on a patrol skiff one day and a large Coast Guard cutter the next, before staking out a spot to watch for people trying to take game illegally.


For Jenny Cutraro, who studied biology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, a background in the field has led to a career as a science writer. She spent two years editing a middle-school science textbook and now works as a science writer at Purdue University. Cutraro writes press releases and feature stories about new research in the life sciences and does some freelance writing on the side.

"Biology is such a dynamic field," Cutraro says. "New discoveries are being made every day. With a career in biology, you'll never get bored!"

Cutraro points out that biology and other sciences can provide a great outlet for creative people. She also says that students should not be misled by stereotypes. "It's not true that scientists are boring and nerdy and spend all day alone in their labs looking through microscopes. Most research in biology is really a team sport."


For both professionals and students, the life sciences can bring a sense of real excitement. One major appeal of a career in the life sciences is that it can be much more than "just a job."

"I love going to work every day knowing that this career is the path I have chosen," says Kimberly Andrews, who recently earned a master's degree in ecology at the University of Georgia, where she is now pursuing a doctorate. "The life sciences field is growing, and so is the diversity of opportunities."

At the same time, Andrews cautions that the career field is competitive and demands hard work. "Biology is not for the tired," she says. "It's an ever-changing field that always requires effort."

For students who are attracted to a career in biology, the first step is taking science courses in school. Some real-life experience is also valuable. Summer jobs, internships, and volunteer positions can help you gain the inside scoop on biology careers.

"Study and enjoy school--especially science, math, and subjects that force you to think and write," says Niesenbaum. "Volunteer in a lab or hospital, on an organic farm, or at a zoo. Get experience and see if a career in biology is right for you."

Six Hot Biology Specialties

Within the life sciences, some areas offer particularly hot career
prospects or the potential for exciting new discoveries. Here are
just a few:

FIELD                  WHAT IT INVOLVES

PHYTOREMEDIATION       Use of plants to clean up toxins
                       in the environment

BIOINFORMATICS         Combination of biology, math,
                       and computer science

ETHNOBOTANY            Study of various uses of indigenous
                       plants (including medicines and foods)

BIOLOGICAL             Study of biological origins, development,
ANTHROPOLOGY           and diversity of human beings; combines
                       biology and the social sciences

VIROLOGY               Study of viruses and viral infections

TEACHING (secondary    The foundation for new generations of
or post-secondary)     scientists and informed citizens

FIELD                  WHY IT'S HOT

PHYTOREMEDIATION       Growing emphasis on protecting the
                       environment; new developments in the field

BIOINFORMATICS         New developments in genetic research

ETHNOBOTANY            Increased focus on global diversity

BIOLOGICAL             Greater understanding of human origins;
ANTHROPOLOGY           trends in cross-disciplinary research

VIROLOGY               Constant need to understand and
                       combat potentially harmful viruses

TEACHING (secondary    Growth in school-age population;
or post-secondary)     need to replace retiring baby boomers


Check out these two Web sites, which offer good overviews of the many avenues you can take with a career in biology:

* American Institute of Biological Sciences www.aibs.org/careers

* Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology www.sicb.org/careers

Students will learn about various careers in the field of biology


* Before reading the article: What careers do you most closely associate with the study of biology?

* Were any of the careers in the article unfamiliar or surprising to you? Which ones? Why?

* Can you think of other careers that someone with an interest in biology might pursue?


* Have students visit a job search Web site, such as monster.com, to look at a selection of currently available biology-related jobs. Have them search under the heading science, using the keyword biology. Ask them to share descriptions of jobs that sound appealing.

teacher resource

"Exploring Biology: Careers and Issues." Chico, Calif.: CyberEd, Inc., 1999. This CD-ROM introduces students to careers in biology and the social issues associated with them.

RELATED ARTICLE: The right education.

What type of education do you need for a career in biology? That depends on your specific goals. Some jobs require an associate's degree. A student who studies biotechnology at a community college, for example, may find 'work as a technician in a research, industrial, or government laboratory. For the majority of careers in biology, a bachelor's or master's degree is needed. For many research positions or for teaching at the college level, a doctorate or medical degree is a must.

The time a student takes to earn degree varies, but in general, an associate's degree may be completed in two years and a bachelor's in four. It typically takes one to two years more to earn a degree and several more years to complete a doctorate.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A121416204