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Hot Jobs: Bioscience and Drug Discovery with “Organs on a Bench”


The medications we use today, to treat everything from coughs to cancer, were developed through a series of steps to figure out how safe and effective they are. It’s a long and expensive process, from lab tests to human subjects, before the drug can be made widely available.

HemoShear Therapeutics, a biotech research company in Charlottesville, Virginia has found a way to make that process faster and safer, using “organs on a bench.” (“Bench” is a term used in science to describe work done or observed in a laboratory, at the workbench.)

“What that means is that we have developed a device that is able to mimic the real human organ,” says Banu Cole. She’s a molecular biologist, and a scientific director at HemoShear.

“We have 120 of these devices. They can function as a liver, a tumor, or a blood vessel.”

By testing diseased cells in these devices, researchers are able to study how diseases affect human organs so that they can discover new cures. Over time, this produces a lot of information to keep track of.

That’s where Steve Hoang comes in. He’s a computational biologist.

“Out of our system we generate large amounts of data, and to interpret that data we have to be able to visualize it,” he says. “So I come up with methods for visualizing and interpreting that data, and making sense of it.”

Jobs in drug discovery and bioscience use math, biology and computer science to improve the lives of very sick people in a faster, safer way. If you do well in these subjects, this might be the field for you!

What is bioscience?Bioscience is a general term for a number of fields based on biology, the study of living things. The biosciences include a wide array of interests, many of which overlap and combine in their own distinct fields of study. But they all share a common link: an interest in understanding the complexities of human, plant and animal life.

Sometimes, bioscience involves the combination of biology and another field of study. For example, you might study chemistry and biology to work in biochemistry (studying the chemical properties of living things). Or, if you have an interest in acoustics (the study of sound), you might combine that with biology to explore bioacoustics (how living things produce and perceive sound).

What is biotechnology?
Biotechnology is a field in which the study of living things is used to develop new products and technologies. These can help to improve a variety of situations, from personal comfort to global health.

For example, by studying plants and their genetic properties, we can genetically modify food crops to be more resistant to disease and drought. This can help to solve hunger in places where healthy crops are scarce.

Or, by studying human physiology and mechanics, we can develop prosthetic limbs that are as comfortable and functional as the arms and legs they replace.

What are some jobs available in bioscience and biotechnology?
There are so many interesting jobs in these fields!

In the video, you met a molecular biologist, who studies biological activity at the molecular level. You also met a computational biologist, who uses biological data to create visual models that explain their complex relationships.

Genetic counselors help families understand their genetic makeup and the risk for genetic conditions in their children. For example, they might talk with a couple who is concerned about a family history of cystic fibrosis, and help them to see whether their future children are likely to develop this disease.

Epidemiologistsinvestigate patterns of widespread disease and injury, and work with communities to combat these. When you see outbreaks in the news, like Ebola or West Nile virus, epidemiologists are hard at work figuring out how they spread and how we can slow them down.

Food scientists research ways to make our food supply safer and more efficient. For example, they might research additives that will keep food fresh so it doesn’t spoil before it can be eaten.

“About Bioscience” has a great collection of careers in this field, including some videos and related classroom activities.

What are the job prospects here in Virginia?
More than 20,000 Virginians are employed in bioscience, in more than 800 facilities across the commonwealth.

Many jobs are at research universities, such as Virginia Tech, or at private companies that have cooperative relationships with nearby colleges. All over Virginia, research parks have been established to support these relationships and the employment opportunities they provide.

Bioscience jobs in Virginia earn an average annual salary of $65,070. Scientists in the 90th percentile of earners in this field make about $109,830.

You can learn more about bioscience jobs and companies in Virginia from this report.

Where can I learn more about these fields of study?
The Virginia Department of Education has a collection of bioscience resources, including videos, lab activities and simulations to explore.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has a site called Biointeractive, with award-winning animations, videos and virtual labs that highlight bioscientific discovery.

Amgen has a great Introduction to Biotechnology that includes its historical roots, current developments and future goals.

What are some resources for students who are interested in pursuing this line of work?
The Virginia Bio Foundation has some great initiatives for students, including a “BioGENEius Challenge” and matching funds for bioscience internships. More information is availableon their website.

The Virginia Biotechnology Association has a section of their website that’s just for students, including opportunities for science fairs and internships.

Johns Hopkins University has a long list of summer programs for science-minded high schoolers across the country, including Virginia’s Jefferson Lab High School Summer Honors Program and VIMS Governor’s School.

The MathScience Innovation Center has bioscience resources for students and teachers.