Biotechnologist


As a biotechnologist, you apply the knowledge to select, manipulate, or modify organisms to produce strains uniquely suited to making a product or driving a process. You play a large role in finding new and innovative solutions to environmental problems, for example using organisms such as bacteria to clean up contaminated sites, investigating new energy sources, or producing environmentally friendly raw materials. In addition to the environment, you could also work in industries such as food production, medicine and health, and manufacturing.

At a glance

Imagine you are bustling around a bright white lab, shuttling closed Petri dishes back and forth between your bench and a large industrial freezer. Normally this freezer is used to preserve specimens, but you are using it to incubate them. You are a biotechnologist developing a new strain of oil-eating bacteria that can be used to clean up oil spills in Canada's Arctic. The Arctic is one of Earth's most sensitive ecosystems, but it also lies on top of oil reserves that are increasingly tapped to feed our dependence on fossil fuels. Even the most minor spill could have devastating repercussions on the Arctic environment, not only from the spill itself, but from the influx of humans, their vehicles, and their waste as they flock to the site to clean it up. That is why you have been working so hard to find a biological solution, one that would have less of an impact on the Arctic's delicately balanced ecosystem. Your research as a biotechnologist begins with bacteria strains used to clean up oil spills in other parts of the world, including on water. These oil-eating bacteria have proven very successful elsewhere, but they simply could not compete in the Arctic's devastatingly cold temperatures, creating a problem you are determined to overcome. You have been crossing strains of bacteria that have already adapted to life at sub-zero temperatures with strains of oil-eaters. After months of experimentation, you have identified several strains that use oil as their food source and actually colonize and grow on their Petri dishes when incubated in the freezer. Now that you have gotten the bacteria to grow, however, you still need to determine if introducing these new strains into the Arctic will have a negative impact on the environment. You must make sure these bacterial colonies will flourish on the oil spill, but die once the spill is cleaned up. This problem will be answered through a series of simulation trials, as well as trials in situ, where the bacteria will be put to the test on real Arctic tundra under real Arctic conditions. You hope that your new strains will be up for the test, but you also hope they will never be needed.

Job duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a biotechnologist:
  • Study and examine the genetic, chemical, physical, and structural composition of cells, tissues, and organisms.
  • Genetically modify organisms to make new products on small and large scales.
  • Examine the social and ethical concerns raised by the communities in which technology-enhanced products are used.
  • Determine the influence of internal and external environments on processes in bacteria, plants, and animals.
  • Work with regulatory officials for the benign deployment of organisms or products developed through biotechnology.
  • Operate and maintain equipment used to process material and biological specimens.
  • Apply knowledge and findings from research to maximize the long-term environmental, economic, and social return from living resources.

Work environment

Biotechnologists work in a variety of locations, including, but not limited to: In the lab:
  • Processing cell or tissue samples for chemical extraction and preparing computer models
  • Operating sophisticated lab equipment such as thermocyclers, electrophoresis equipment, centrifuges, and spectrophotometers
  • Organizing and maintaining samples
  • Maintaining notebooks with procedures and data records
In the office:
  • Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Researching literature and preparing reports and scientific papers
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and other scientists
  • Researching new technology and advancements in biotechnology, and consulting with other biotechnology professionals
  • Preparing funding or patent applications

Where to work

There are a number of places biotechnologists can find employment. They include:
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Biotechnology firms
  • Environmental consulting firms
  • Diagnostic labs, such as medical and forensic labs
  • Firms in other industries, for example oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, fisheries, and agriculture

Education & requirements

The minimum education requirement to work as a biotechnologist is university undergraduate degree, though the majority of positions are in research and require graduate studies. If you are considering a career as a biotechnologist, the following programs are most applicable:
  • Biotechnology
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Microbiology
Certification is not mandatory for biotechnologists, but many practitioners choose to belong to professional associations such as their provincial association for professional biologists. If you are a high school student considering a career as a biometrician, you should have a strong interest in:
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • English/French