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Volume 90, Issue 102

Wednesday, April 09, 1997



Mutant growth in biotech industry

By Richard Hamid, Emily Wilson, Heather Prangley and Andrew Szczerba
Gazette Writers

You're about to graduate with a science degree, what's next? The modern science of biotechnology is becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives and you may be wondering if this might be your field of choice.

Biotechnology is the application of biological knowledge to create products to put on the market for general use or consumption that improves the quality of life for humans and the environment. Biotechnology is not a recent invention – it includes such endeavours as brewing beer, fermenting wine, curdling cheese and the selective breeding of animals and plants in order to make more productive varieties.

Many new biotechnological companies that started up after the mid '80s are using the new recombinant techniques of DNA manipulation, commonly known as genetic engineering, to create products that are revolutionizing health care, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and chemical industries. In health care, products include: vaccines, antibiotics and diagnostic kits to screen for disease. Products involving agriculture include: molecular farming, the growing of crops specifically to produce enzymes, proteins and other beneficial chemicals and animal and plant production improvement and crop protection by growing plants that contain genes that provide resistance to insects.

What exactly are the hot occupations in the field of biotechnology? They fall into three general categories: basic and applied science research, product development and business administration.

A biotech company will have several research groups working on a project applying biological knowledge in order to come up with a marketable product. These groups consist of a project leader who is most likely a PhD graduate with years of experience and a few research associates. These scientists are supported by research assistants and technicians who are M.Sc. or B.Sc. graduates with little or no previous experience. These employees would most likely have degrees in biochemistry and/or molecular biology.

Novartis Seeds Inc. is an agricultural biotech company that breeds hardier, more productive crops with built-in insect and disease resistance. Their research department combines genetic engineering and traditional plant breeding. In the genetic engineering department, a PhD graduate with a degree in genetics supervises the technicians who are typically B.Sc. and M.Sc. graduates with backgrounds in either genetics or molecular biology. The PhD supervisors involved in the seed research and traditional plant breeding have degrees in genetics and the technical support consists of people with master's in genetics or plants and B.Sc. graduates with a degree in biology. Of course, experience in crops and other related field work is a definite advantage.

Another hot field in biotechnological research is bioinformatics. These scientists are knowledgeable in structural biology, computational chemistry and mathematics.

There are excellent opportunities for bachelor of science graduates with some business expertise to excel in administrative positions. For scientists with a law degree, patent administration provides positions where the individual holds an important post in safe guarding the intellectual holdings and the financial vitality of the company.

David Jensen is the managing director of Search Masters International, an employment recruiting firm that endorses candidates for positions in biotech firms. He says it is not as easy for a science graduate to find a job as say five or 10 years ago when those graduates even distantly related to the field of biotechnology could easily land a well-paying job with what seemed like an unlimited number of companies. This leads us to the problem of finding the right biotech job that suits your educational background and experience in today's competitive job market.

Dan Malelet, now a graduate student in the department of plant sciences at Western was "Joe Nobody," as he describes his situation after graduating with a B.Sc. a couple of years ago.

"I had sent out over 130 letters asking for employment to biotech companies, research institutes and hospitals all over the world," Malelet explains. "I got some offers, they were only for four to six month contracts but I didn't have the financial resources to move for only several months and other offers had pay lower than the local costs of living.

"It's pretty bleak out there if you don't have any contacts."

This is where a masters of science degree or PhD graduate has an advantage over a B.Sc. Not only do they have more education and several years of lab experience, they also have a lot more personal contacts. Malelet adds that after a student earns a graduate degree, the job prospects increase dramatically. "Once you're published and have several years of laboratory experience and several professors can vouch for you – you're basically set."

One of the newest places to look for a job is on the Internet. There is a wealth of material devoted to aid in your search for a biotech job. An excellent page called Employment Links For The Biomedical Scientist, at www.his.com/~graeme/employ.html, is a recommended one-stop science employment links pages on the web.

Students should also be aware of the kind of support that is available from their universities after graduation in order to land a fulfilling job to begin their career. Sharon Lee, Western's co-ordinator of student employment services, explains how her service helps students. "We don't take students and match them up to individual jobs – we post job opportunities in our Internet Café," she explains.

"We have two main employment programs – the job listing service and on campus recruiting. In the future, we might use our server and post students' resumés directly on the Internet and any potential employer could then peruse our database." However, Lee adds on-campus recruiting is used mostly by large corporations to hire dozens of engineering and business students at one time.

"They [companies] do recruit less from the natural sciences, simply because they may recruit hundreds of people for administrative, sales and marketing positions or individuals qualified in computer/engineering science but when you get into more precise research scientific areas, there may be only a few positions in a corporation where a genetic/biochemistry graduate is needed," Lee explains.

"It's not that the positions don't exist, it just means that there aren't as many of them in one company, so they aren't usually found through the on-campus recruiting program where a big company hires en masse at several campuses."

SES also has a technology-based service so that employers from around the world can discover graduates who are suitable to work in their biotech company. Students can apply for positions in these companies and take advantage of video conferencing for interviews.

Lee said she believes the role of post-secondary education throughout an individual's life may start to change. "We're suggesting a lifelong relationship with your university because a graduate may take a six-month or a two-year contract in a research position and then will be looking again for a job," she says. "You should always be able to return to your alma mater because you can increase your abilities, say by enrolling in the HBA or MBA program in order for you to have the necessary skills to start your own biotech company or become a more valued employee."

graphics by Colin Dunne

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Copyright © The Gazette 1997