How to Become a Professional Biologist

Scott Freeman has been a part-time biology instructor at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, for the past 13 years. He earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Carleton College in Minnesota, then went on to earn a PhD in zoology from the University of Washington. Scott has also helped to write numerous biology textbooks, including “Evolutionary Analysis” and “Biological Science,” each in its fourth edition.

What is biology?

Biology is the study of living things. It is the study of life, literally. “Bio” means life and “ology” refers to the study of something. Biologists study species and organisms, animals and plants, and fungi, and everything else on the planet that is alive at different levels. Some biologists look at the molecules inside organisms, and some study cells that are the basic building blocks of everything that is alive. Some look at organs and systems. Some look at how whole individuals function, and some look at how entire ecosystems function. Biology is practiced at all different levels.

What do you find the most interesting about studying biology?

I think the attraction is the ability to think about life and living things on many different levels. I love to research or read what people are discovering about how molecules work, or how cells work, or what is going on with ecosystems around the world. I love that ability to think on different levels and the ability to use different techniques to get data. I love the diversity of ideas that are a core element of biology.

The second thing that I find really interesting about biology is its relevance to our lives. Biologists have a huge impact on how we understand the way humans behave and how we practice medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, and all other aspects of healthcare. Biology defines how we understand and use plants and animals around the world, and how we attack issues like climate change or pollution, or loss of species diversity through extinction.

What is your least favorite aspect of studying biology?

My least favorite aspects of biology are more about people’s perception of biology, than biology itself. First, I don’t like it when people think that biology is simply a collection of facts. That is not what biology is about. Of course, biologists must know and understand certain facts, but biology is actually about asking questions about how things work and why organisms do they do what they do.

The second thing that I wish were different is the way that biology, and for that matter science in general, are covered in the popular press. First, there is a common perception that biologists are old white guys in lab coats. But in reality, biologists come in every color of the rainbow, from every place on Earth. In fact, more than 60 percent of my biology students are women. Second, biology is very collaborative. We always work in groups, often internationally, to solve problems. However, that is just not the media image. In addition, the media often does not accurately or effectively report when specific issues come up, such as a health issue, climate change, or new research.

Journalists often make things sound too sensational, or they think that they must present a counter opinion. For example, with an issue like climate change, almost every working scientist on Earth looks at the data and says, “Oh yeah, humans are causing climate change and this is having a lot of ramifications for weather and forest fires and all sorts of things that affect our lives.” However, the media approaches issues assuming that there must be two sides to every story, and they search for some scientist who disagrees. Then they find some individual who may not be credible to give a counter opinion that is not scientifically legitimate. Because of the media’s coverage of scientific issues like this, the public can get the wrong idea about what is actually occurring in science.

Are there subfields of biology that people might not be aware of?

Definitely. In fact, there are many new and interesting things being discovered as we speak. For example, there is a lot of interest in a field called biomaterials, which initially arose from chemistry. People began researching things like spider silk, and the amazing glue that mussels use to bind themselves to rocks. There is developing interest in that field of figuring out how organisms make these cool materials, and questions around how we can make them ourselves and use them.

There is also a lot of interest in a new field called bioengineering or biophysics. This is where people try to figure out how animals and plants work as machines, and scientists try to determine how we can engineer structures to mimic what animals and plants do naturally.

The third field that comes to mind is called bioinformatics. This field involves genome sequencing, or DNA sequencing. We now have the technology to generate enormous amounts of data. Bioinformatics researchers are inventing computer systems so that we can store all of this information, and more importantly, to retrieve it and do something useful with it.

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in biology?

In my introductory biology classes, we ask students when they walk in the door what job they are planning to pursue. Most biology students plan on pursuing a career as a doctor, dentist, pharmacist, or researcher. Sometimes, students are interested in conservation and wildlife. We actually do a lab exercise with our students where we talk about possible careers in biology. I sat down with my colleagues and compiled a list of every possible career we could think of for a student to pursue with a biology degree. We came up with over 120 jobs.

I have had students who went into law to work on intellectual property issues and patents with biological materials. One of my former students became a stock broker. A biology degree is much more diverse than people realize!

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in biology, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor’s degree?

Someone can certainly get started in biology with a four-year college degree. With a bachelor’s degree, someone could be an assistant in a lab or work in agriculture research. But an undergraduate degree only gets someone so far in the field of biology. If someone wants to do more in biology, then yes, it is necessary to have more advanced training.

What personality traits do you think that a student should have in order to be successful in a biology program?

One trait that is crucial is the ability to work with other people. This is essential because so much of science is collaborative. For example, healthcare is very people-oriented.

Other important traits are drive and persistence. Not everything is going to be wonderful and rosy and neat. The training and the work itself can be difficult. You must be able to say “I’m going to do this.” When things get tough, you need to force yourself to keep going.

Other traits are creativity and a drive to learn more about the world. Biologists ask questions all the time, so it is crucial to have an inquisitiveness about why things are.

What electives do you recommend that biology students take?

Chemistry is basic to understanding biology, and so is mathematics. Those are important building block courses. It is also crucial to have the ability to write well and speak well, so I would recommend elective courses to build those skills.

What pieces of advice, or words of caution, would you offer to a prospective student of biology?

The best advice I can offer is to do it because you love it and because you think it is interesting. Do it because you think you will enjoy getting up and going to work each morning. People get frustrated studying biology if they pursued it for the wrong reasons. If someone enters biology because someone else said to, or because it seems lucrative, that is just not enough. The desire has to come from inside you.