In celebration of World Biology Week, our skills team spoke to a number of professionals in the Biology industry to learn about routes and tips for entering the sector. We also asked about their career highlights and any advice for aspiring biologists!

The article is part of our Inspire North of Tyne programme, which seeks to inspire and educate young people about careers in STEAM industries.

Routes into biology

Biology is a vast and varied industry with many different opportunities to specialise in a huge range of topics. The routes into careers in biology therefore, are also vast and varied, depending on a person’s interests and ambitions. Here are some examples:

Mark Playford - Senior Global Clinical Educator for Diabetes Digital Platforms for Medtronic Ltd. 
Mark first studied A-levels in biology, followed by a degree in Bio-Med. He then “qualified as a Registered Nurse, became a Renal Research Nurse and went to work for Medtronic as a Diabetes Field Educator in London." He stayed at Medtronic and grew into different roles. He was promoted to work on one of its digital platforms in EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) and was then promoted to his current global role as Senior Global Clinical Educator for Diabetes Digital Platforms.

Craig Oliver – Microbiologist for RVI Hospitals Newcastle. 
Craig started with an apprenticeship, where he gained an NVQ 3 and became qualified as a Laboratory Technician. He also attended college to gain a BTEC 3 in applied science. He did leave the apprenticeship to go on to university to study an accredited degree (IBMS) in biomedical science, after which he became a Microbiologist.

Sarah Mcguinness – Laboratory Technician at Wickham School. 
Sarah studied a BTEC national diploma in Applied sciences at Newcastle College. Next, she studied Human Biosciences at Northumbria University Newcastle. Following this, she quickly gained her first science job role.

Nick Hutchinson – Group Lead at FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies 
Nick discussed how he took what may be considered a traditional route into the industry, completing “A levels in Biology, Chemistry and Geography, followed by a degree in Microbiology and additional training in Biochemical engineering and business sponsorship”.

Biology in the North East

From working in hospitals and labs, to schools and pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies and factories, biology is often all around us and you can find many opportunities to start or progress your career right on your doorstep!

Mark Playford - Senior Global Clinical Educator for Diabetes Digital Platforms for Medtronic Ltd stated “I think there are some excellent universities, NHS institutions, and private firms in the area providing opportunities. I did have to move out of the North East to work for Medtronic initially, but there are more remote working opportunities available with large companies now, making it easier to access more diverse jobs too.”

Kai Oxley – Undergraduate Biology Student spoke about how he believes there are opportunities both in the North East as well as worldwide and specifically believes that “Marine biology is massive in the North East and I feel that I have chosen a good place to study and have plenty of opportunities after the degree. I plan on taking a gap year and travelling and working on wildlife conservation abroad, but think that there would always be opportunities for me to return to."

Nick Hutchinson – Group Lead at FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies believes that there are “lots of opportunities in the North East due to all 5 universities offering relevant programmes”. He states that after studying in the field of biology “you could make a career in the North East, or you could travel” as there is “such a high need for the talented people with the right skills”.

Learning and working in STEAM

The day to day working routine of someone working in biology can change regularly, creating an exciting and interesting working life.

Sarah Mcguinness – Laboratory Technician at Wickham School stated “My main daily duties consist of:

  • The preparation of a range of equipment (e.g. preparation of solutions, bacterial cultures, DNA sampling for centrifugation, preparation of organic solutions for organic chemistry and physics)
  • Trialing and producing my own methods for current practical work to ensure best practice, assistance and demonstration within practical lessons.
  • The trialing of practical experiments to produce sample results and allow for the alternation of practical and taught lessons. 
  • Further research to support practical and theory work, preparation of folders of research for practical work ensuring the most up-to-date methods are used, updating current practical and theory lessons, preparation and planning of both practical and theory lessons. 
  • Ensuring all health and safety regulations are met continuously to ensure safe and up-to-date practice."

Craig Oliver – Microbiologist for RVI Hospitals Newcastle told us about his duties and said “I work in both clinical and research microbiology. In terms of clinical microbiology, I work with various types of microorganisms which come from patients’ samples. This includes, body fluids such as blood, urine, CSF, and other human samples such as sputum, faeces, skin samples and swabs from wounds etc. My role is to culture the various specimens to find the growth specific organisms which are pathogenic or responsible for causing illness. From this we can identify the culprit and start a medical regime such as antibiotics.

In aspects of research, I’ve have been in research with a specific bacterium called actinomyces, the principle of the research is to cultivate the specified bacteria to utilise it and determine if it is capable of producing new antibiotics in the fight against antibiotic shortage/resistance.”

Ashmita Randhawa – former Senior Scientist at Procter and Gamble spoke of how her fondest memory of her STEAM education and work life was during her second year as an undergrad. She recalls “I was given autonomy and would go into the lab at night to see how my bacteria had grown, I only had to go in on an evening because I had done it wrong, but going into the lab alone and checking on my work and showing that commitment really stayed with me”

Advice for Students

The individuals that we spoke to had ideas on the skills and personal attributes that they believe will be useful for students and aspiring biologists.

Craig Oliver – Microbiologist for RVI Hospitals Newcastle believed that in order to work in STEAM, or in the biology industry, you should have “Passion, dedication, patience and an open mind. Biology is essentially evolving every day. What didn’t work today, may very well work tomorrow. There is a LOT to learn in biology and indeed it can be very confusing and overwhelming. Don’t let it put you off. Learn the basics of a topic or field that interests you and build it up from there, at first, you’ll know a little about a lot, then you’ll come to know a lot about a lot. Definitely read your professional books, learn the theory first, then put it into practice."

Ashmita Randhawa– former Senior Scientist at Procter and Gamble believes the important thing for a biologist is to be curious. She said: “the more you listen and read, the more informed you will be … it’s important to step out of that comfort zone of only knowing what you need to know … Thinking critically is a big thing and building critical skills is so important. If you’re going to be a scientist, you’re going to be creating new knowledge.”

Kai Oxley – Undergraduate Biology Student advises students to learn more about themselves. What is your learning style? What type of routine suits you best? This will help you manage your time and workload, which is important in any role. “Time management is a big one, it’s an important thing to learn whilst at university, I chose sixth form because the environment allowed me to develop these skills with the additional freedom it gave.”

Nick Hutchinson – Group Lead at FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies reflected on how working in science can have a real "big impact on people's lives". You may be working on big projects, such as  "developing medications that change people’s lives or new treatments for diseases such as cancer.". Useful skills for the field, he said, are “numeracy and literacy, the ability to interact and engage, customer facing skills, problem solving skills and an eye for detail”, considering the field is “ever changing, often at the cutting edge of technology and highly rewarding”.