MadSci Network: Molecular Biology

Re: What does a molecluar biologist do and what does it take?

Date: Sun Dec 3 18:47:51 2000
Posted By: Daniel Lafontaine, Post-doc/Fellow, Biochemistry, University of Dundee
Area of science: Molecular Biology
ID: 971917698.Mb

Dear Jay,

I will try to be as general as possible but keep in mind that my opinion is restricted by my research field (which is fundamental research).

First, let's give a 'friendly definition' for a molecular biologist. We can safely define it by saying that it is a biologist working at the molecular level. I think that the term 'biologist' is quite common these days. It is someone working with living organisms (from animals to plants). However, the term 'molecular' is quite new (from my perspective). This term basically means 'little things'. So, instead of working with whole organisms (like the biologist), the molecular biologist works with parts coming from these organisms (like cells, protein, nucleic acids,...). Also, you can think of a molecular biologist as someone who study how genes work in vivo (in living organisms) or in vitro (in a test tube).

Having now the 'definition' in mind, I think that I should give you some typical example of the work. First, depending of the project that you work on, you can be in a lab sitting at a bench or in a field (which just means outdoor). The second one is less frequent but quite possible. What you can do strictly depends on the project (which depends of your interests). It can be on the inhibition of a virus doing some nasty things or on the datation of old bones sitting somewhere. As I said, it mainly depends of your own interests.

Do you want to involve computers ? These days, a lot of molecular biologist work strictly with computers (database, mathematical algorithms, ...). It may sounds strange but now with the sequencing of the human genome, it will now be even more present.

So, first define what you really like and the rest should come. About what you need to do in college, I think that the common courses of biology, chemistry, biochemistry should do. These ones are pretty basics (and enough for a start) but if you want, you can do physics and maths. These last two should be helpful if you go in anything involving biophysics or physico-chemistry. As you can see, the field is quite large !

In your career, you will have to learn some basic techniques (cloning, PCR, blot, ...). Sometimes, the work can be quite repetitive. For example, let's say that you want to obtain a mutant of a fly (most probably D. melanogaster) that show a rythm of life slower than the wild type (the normal guy). One way that people did it is to use chemical agents that will mutate the genome of the fly (I'm sure now they have moved to some other quick method). The goal is to do this on a huge number of fly and hope to get one that shows the behaviour that you want. So, it can be long. On the other hand, it can also become very exciting when you find something unexpected and revolutional. Who knows, Nobel prize ?? Anyway, it is always rewarding when others appreciate your work.

I should say that this work requires to be open-minded because you often have to work in different environment. Because of its intrinsic nature, molecular biology promotes the inter-relation between people and very often between countries. It appears to me to be a good job to meet and exchange with others.

The best advice that I can give you is to read books about that. On the top of my head, I can think of "The double helix" written by J.D. Watson (it's a classic example). But there is plenty of other popular scientific books !

I have done a quick search on the web and I found that someone asked about the same question as you. You can see a very good answer at the following web page: e.archive/Life_Science.Cell/2000.01/000946466024.27099.html

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