Biological Technicians

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1 SOC : Assist biological and medical scientists in laboratories. Set up, operate, and maintain laboratory instruments and equipment, monitor experiments, make observations, and calculate and record results. May analyze organic substances, such as blood, food, and drugs. Introduction Bioscience and its discoveries have been frequent front-page news the past few years, from genome research to advances in pharmaceuticals to the debate on the use of human embryonic stem cells. In 2004, California voters passed Proposition 71, a $3 billion initiative to jump start California s stem cell research. San Francisco has since been selected as the site of the proposed research institute, but the proposition has yet to dispense any funds. Throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, there is an expansive industry cluster of biomedical and biopharmaceuticals companies, medical device manufacturers, and companies focusing on research and development in the life sciences. A 2004 Milken Institute survey ranked the San Francisco Bay Area second behind only Boston in its measure of the current strength of this life-sciences cluster and regional growth potential. Locally, San Jose has invested in development of its Bioscience Incubator and Innovation Center, which offers low-cost lab and office space on a month-to-month basis to as many as 15 start-up companies. Venture capital investments in Silicon Valley companies totaled approximately $7.1 billion in 2004, with investments in biotechnology and medical devices representing 20 percent of this total, an increase of 29 percent from 2003 investment figures. Within the biotechnology industry, 313 different occupations have been identified, with biological technicians representing 19 percent of the occupations within the industry, biological scientists representing 19 percent, and life, physical, and social scientists representing another 17 percent. Emerging specializations within the industry include bioprocessing, biomanufacturing, and bioinformatics. Job titles vary from company to company and biological technicians may also be known as life sciences research assistant, pre-clinical laboratory assistant, research assistant, research associate, or research laboratory technician. Nature of the Work The day-to-day work of biological technicians may include assisting in the design and set-up of experiments; monitoring laboratory work; isolating, identifying, and preparing specimens for examination; presenting data and findings to staff; and keeping detailed records, both handwritten and electronic. Due to the complexity and formality of the patent process for pharmaceutical products a key industry segment within the life sciences accurate records are mandatory. Biotechs may also utilize complex and high-powered equipment, such as gas chromatographs or mass spectrometers, and perform sophisticated processes, such as polymerase chain reactions (PCR) or high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). Computer use is necessary and spreadsheet applications are used for keeping records, performing data analysis, and creating graphs and charts. Work will vary from one day to the next depending upon the stage of the experimental research and it may be necessary to modify the methods or procedures undertaken to gain the information required. Within a laboratory setting, technicians work both independently and interact with others on the research team, often reporting frequently to a principal investigator or team leader. In a research setting, work can be a very social and interactive endeavor. Because the work tends to be smallgroup oriented, hours can be quite flexible, particularly within a university setting, although a standard range of hours may be imposed by the employer. Job Requirements Skills/Characteristics At the heart of scientific research is the search for answers. Technicians, therefore, must be observant, developing hypotheses, looking for the 21

2 unexpected, and using analytical and critical-thinking skills in developing viable explanations. Biotechs must constantly expand their training to incorporate new techniques, new equipment, and new procedures. Hands-on laboratory experience is essential; understanding scientific theory without possessing up-to-date research techniques is not sufficient. Initiative, independence, organization, and attention to detail are also all important. Communication, both oral and written, is mandatory given the complexity of information needing to be conveyed. Training/Experience While two-year programs are available locally that will prepare individuals to work in entry-level research, industrial, and government settings, an undergraduate degree in biology, chemistry, or other life science is necessary for obtaining employment as a research associate. Beyond this, a master s degree is often required for biological technician positions and prior experience in a lab setting is preferred. Employment Recruitment/Hiring Work-study programs and internship opportunities, where they are available, provide opportunities for individuals to gain experience while still in school. Locally, NASA Ames Research Center a world-renowned center for biotechnology and nanotechnology co-hosts an internship program with Foothill-De Anza Community College District. Some companies hire staff through staffing agencies, such as Kelly Scientific, which specializes in temporary assignments for those with backgrounds in scientific or technical fields. Benefits & Challenges Biological technicians appreciate and enjoy science and the scientific process. They are enthusiastic about performing research and find value in conducting research that may benefit others. Outsourcing may be a problem within the biotech industry, particularly for the manufacturing side of the business. However, patent issues within the pharmaceutical sector may set limits on the scope of outsourcing. The U.S. should expect greater competition, however, from regions like India and China, where significant investments are being made toward the research and development aspects of the industry the most expensive and time-consuming processes. 45% 36% 27% 18% 9% 0% Knowledge, Skills & Abilities Knowledge Biology Chemistry Mathematics English language Production and processing Computers and electronics Skills Science Reading comprehension Instructing Active learning Learning strategies Time management Abilities Information ordering Problem sensitivity Deductive reasoning Near vision Oral expression Selective attention Top Employing Industries (California) 22

3 Career Ladders & Lattices Education Distribution As in most science-related industries, the greatest opportunities for advancement require graduate or post-graduate degrees. Experience gained in the laboratory is essential for those interested in moving into more business-specific pursuits within a research company. With experience, even those with bachelor s degrees may have opportunities to move into sales, marketing, or positions of management. Bachelor degree or higher 59.0% Some College 16.4% 24.6% High school or less Occupational Wages $60 $50 $40 $30 $20 $10 $0 $60 $50 $40 $30 $20 $10 $0 23

4 Kristel Dorighi Life Sciences Research Assistant 1. Please tell us about your current position and how you arrived there. When I received my bachelor of science in biology, I decided to work as a technician in a lab to prepare me for graduate school and strengthen my résumé. I had been advised by my professors to gain research experience prior to applying for graduate school, so I applied for research assistant positions at a local university through their online employment Web site. About a month later and after a few interviews, I secured a position in an immunology lab. My job consists of working toward completing research projects, as well as ordering and stocking lab supplies. I work with other members of the lab on a daily basis to accomplish my research goals and am guided by the principle investigator. 2. Please describe your typical workday so that a job seeker might get a sense of what you actually do. On a typical workday, the first thing I do is plan my day. I remind myself of the stage I am at in my experiments what I will need to do next and how I will go about accomplishing these tasks. I also read research papers to keep current on new developments in the field and experimental protocols to learn about the techniques I am using in my experiments. In addition, I often need to optimize or troubleshoot experimental procedures. On a daily basis, I use a variety of molecular biological techniques, such as PCR [polymerase chain reaction], DNA sequencing, blotting, cloning, and microscopy. 3. Which aspects of your education and/or training made you more capable or marketable in this field? My science degree and prior lab experience were crucial for securing this position, as the university required a bachelor s degree and a minimum of two years lab experience. A fundamental understanding of biology, gained through my undergraduate coursework, in addition to advanced coursework in immunology, genetics, and cell and molecular biology, were also valuable. I have found that being self-motivated, organized, flexible, and excited about learning has also benefited me in this position. 4. What are the most exciting aspects of your job? What do you like most about your job? I like that my job is thought intensive and that the tasks I perform are varied. Every day I am learning new things, using my reasoning skills to decide how to proceed and working autonomously to make progress on my research project. Additionally, I enjoy the convenience of working flexible hours and the ability to easily adjust my schedule. 5. What do you dislike or find challenging about your job? Research can be tiring because you are on your feet and thinking for much of the day. It can also be frustrating, because experiments sometimes fail or you make mistakes, which can delay your progress. Another challenging aspect of research is when you are first starting out, there is a great deal of information to know, but there is no good way to learn it all at once. I found that lab manuals and other researchers can be extremely valuable resources, especially in the initial stages. I believe that scientific research is truly an apprenticeship, and although it may be frustrating at times, it is also extremely rewarding. 25

5 6. What advice would you give to a person seeking a job in your field? If you are in school, take as many lab classes as you can. I believe that lab classes are more valuable than lecture classes, because that is where you will get the hands-on practice and experience that you will be using as a research assistant. Be proactive about learning. Read as much as you can, ask questions of your colleagues, and do not get discouraged if you feel inferior at first. Your principle investigator (PI) can be a huge asset to you, not only while you are in the lab, but also in your future career, so it is important to have a good working relationship with that person. In particular, if you are considering a long-term position as a biotechnician, it is important to get along with your PI, because other personnel in the lab come and go, whereas your PI tends to be there for the long term. 7. What qualities make someone a star performer in this occupation? Organization is important in almost every aspect of lab work. From keeping track of samples to recording experimental data, the ability to be methodical and organized will make your work that much easier. Computer skills are also useful in particular, the ability to create spreadsheets, presentations, and Word documents. The ability to work cooperatively and be flexible is also an invaluable attribute. There is frequently competition for space, resources, and equipment in the lab, so being able to communicate effectively with your colleagues can be very important. 26

6 Report Evaluation

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