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Careers in Genetic Engineering

Education and Training: Doctoral degree

Salary: Median—$65,110 per year

Employment Outlook: Very good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Genetic engineering research scientists, or biotechnologists, manipulate and modify the genes, or hereditary makeup, of microorganisms, plants, and animals. They are specialists in the field of genetics and conduct research in a broad range of biological sciences including biochemistry, botany, embryology, and microbiology. They have developed techniques with numerous important applications in the fields of medicine, agriculture, and animal husbandry.

By isolating and modifying genetic material, genetic engineering research scientists have developed strains of bacteria that improve the effects of antibiotics and other useful pharmaceutical products. Clinical tests to help diagnose hereditary diseases and to circumvent infertility in humans have also been developed By isolating and modifying genetic material, genetic engineering research scientists have made medical breakthroughs concerning antibiotics, hereditary diseases, and infertility in humans.(© Rick Friedman/Corbis.) through genetic engineering. In agriculture, this technology is used to develop new crops that are more nutritious, disease-resistant, and able to flourish with less fertilizer. Genetic engineering has also been used to regulate animal breeding. In addition, other work has been directed toward the development of microorganisms that can be used to detoxify industrial waste or to provide alternate fuel sources. The U.S. Patent Office has approved many genetically engineered products including bacteria that consume oil spills and hormones that improve the milk yield of cows.

Genetic engineering research scientists are involved in researching, developing, and testing new methods and products with many potential applications. They are employed in private industry by chemical and pharmaceutical companies and firms that specialize in genetic engineering. Some work in medical facilities, colleges, or universities. Many are engaged in AIDS research.

Most genetic engineering research scientists are microbiologists. They use recombinant DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) techniques, or gene splicing, to isolate genetic material from one organism and transplant it into another.

Genetically engineered drugs, chemicals, and other products are subjected to numerous forms of laboratory testing, including pyrogen (temperature) testing, microbial limit testing, and sterility testing, among many others. Based on their findings, genetic engineering research scientists must establish protocols, or stringent product standards, for the products they develop. After their development in vitro ("under glass," or in test tubes), these products undergo extensive in vivo ("in life") testing, or testing on a representative sample of the population for which the product is intended. Frequently a biostatistician enters the test data and results into a computer system and analyzes them. After the testing is completed, the scientists must carefully review the results and prepare a comprehensive report detailing the product trials.
Education and Training Requirements

You generally need a doctoral degree in a biological science to become a genetic engineering research scientist. You should major in biology, botany, chemistry, zoology, or a related field as an undergraduate. Later, in graduate school, you may want to specialize in microbiology, genetics, embryology, biochemistry, or another specialized bioscience or medical science. It usually takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree and another one or two years to earn a master's degree. You need to go to school for an additional three or four years after receiving a bachelor's degree to obtain a doctoral degree. A few genetic engineering research scientists get both a doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree and a doctoral (Ph.D.) degree. Some colleges and universities offer undergraduate and graduate programs in genetic engineering.

Getting the Job

Your professors and college placement office may help you to find a job as a scientist specializing in genetic engineering research. Biology and genetics department notice boards may advertise summer positions for graduate students. Professional journals, newspaper classifieds, and job banks on the Internet are good sources of job openings. You can also apply directly to genetic engineering firms, chemical companies, and pharmaceutical companies. Medical schools and some research hospitals also may hire genetic engineering research scientists.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Genetic engineering research scientists can become project leaders or administrators of entire research programs. The publishing of important research findings in professional journals can lead to advancement. Some genetic engineering research scientists may be able to start their own consulting firms or biotechnology laboratories.

The employment outlook for genetic engineering research scientists is very good. Interest in genetic research has rapidly increased in the past few years, with discoveries leading to the possible cures and the treatment of many diseases. Research scientists will be in high demand as more and more applications for genetic engineering are found in medicine, agriculture, and private industry.

Working Conditions

Most genetic engineering research scientists spend a large proportion of their time in clean, well-equipped laboratories. They generally work thirty-five to forty hours a week. In some cases, they may work extra hours to complete special projects.

Genetic engineering research scientists usually work as part of a team. They must be able to cooperate and communicate with other scientists in their field. They should enjoy working with precise and complex subject matter and be willing to comply with stringent cleanliness and safety standards.

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings for genetic engineering research scientists vary depending on their education and experience. In 2004 the median salary for scientists working for scientific research and development services was $65,110. Benefits include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.

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