Biotechnology is one of the most exciting fields today. Essentially, it is the use of living organisms, particularly micro-organisms, in industrial processes. Biotechnology has been used for years in baking, brewing and cheese making, but the industry has been revolutionized in recent years by advances in genetics and genetic engineering. Specially designed micro-organisms are now used to produce a wide variety of drugs and other chemicals, to refine ores and clear up oil slicks. Crops too have been engineered to produce high yielding varieties. The film Jurassic Park was a fictional story about genetic engineering but scientists in biotechnology are actually challenging nature in many ways.
Biotechnology is a young science, with limitless possibilities. Since it is a new science, there is possibility of fruitful research which may yield benefits to the human race in times to come. Broadly speaking, it combines two or three sciences and is concerned with three fields: health and medicine, agriculture and animal husbandry and industry.
Living things have genes which give them distinct characteristics, some of them negative. Scientists can tinker with the cells, from micro-organisms to human cells, to remove the negative trait. Using techniques of biochemistry, microbiology, genetics and chemical engineering, biotechnologists can thus draw benefits from properties inherent in nature.
For example, genes in tomatoes can be tampered with to produce a species which does not rot fast. In other crops, qualities of pest or disease resistance can be built in so that the crop can better withstand attacks.
How to join:
A person wanting to join a course in biotechnology must have a background of science, though engineers are also preferred. Since the career involves research, one must have an academic bent of mind. One has to be hard working and willing to put in a lot of effort in experiments. A researcher’s patience and creativity is also required since some experiments may not work or yield results, while others may require new and innovative procedures since biotechnology is a virgin science.
To join the field of biotechnology, you should have a background of science, that is, biology, chemistry, physics or agriculture. An engineering background would also do, since several industries prefer biotechnologists with knowledge of engineering. Some universities offer the B.Sc in biotechnology which one can join after class 12. One can also do the five-year integrated M.Tech course at the IIT after class 12.
At the post graduate level, one can do M.Sc, M.Tech, M.Sc (Agri) biotechnology or M.Sc(Animal) biotechnology. About 19 universities offer these programmes and admit science graduates through a combined biotechnology entrance exam conducted by the JNU. Those who have done B.Sc in physical, biological, agricultural, veterinary and fishery sciences, pharmacy, engineering, technology or medicine can join.
There are other universities and institutes offering courses in this field. Some of these institutes are:
National Institute of Immunology
National Dairy Research Institute
Indian Agricultural Research Institute
Indian Institute of Science
The programmes are promoted by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Another option would be to go abroad. Biotechnology is at the forefront of research in developed countries and a number of institutes offer courses, providing manpower to research laboratories and biotechnology companies which have multiplied in recent times. Post doctoral study programmes are available. The Ministry of Science and Technology awards the Biotechnology Overseas Associateships for advanced research in molecular biology, microbial genetics, gene therapy, virology, tissue culture and so on.
To be a Biotechnologist, you have to be a good researcher and possess the ability to work with tissues drawn from plants or other living things. You will also have to keep in touch with the latest research being done all over the world, so you must keep in touch with science journals. Since it is a virgin area, a certain amount of creativity is also required.
Also required is patience. Experiments may have to be conducted over a number of days, which may or may not yield the results expected by you. So, while you have the chance of discovering something which is pathbreaking, you may also have the chance in which several years of your research may not yield anything and may go waste.
A word of warning may be in order here. A researcher in India may get a fellowship of around Rs 3,000 per month while the beginning salaries for other professions have gone up considerably in the past few years. There is also the problem that your efforts may not be appreciated by your seniors, since scientific institutions in India have a hard seniority structure. These may be future points of frustration and a person must assess both before joining a career in research. Going abroad may be an option, but it is good to remember that not everybody is able to do so.
A Biotechnologist may work in government institutes and organisations, such as DBT and the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Development of Education, Science and Technology at Thiruvananthapuram. A number of agriculture, dairy and horticulture institutes also exist which would employ biotechnologists. There are also some drug companies in biotechnology, like Dabur, Ranbaxy, Hindustan Lever, Dr Reddy’s Labs which have their R & D units and corporate sector would be another area which have openings.
The starting salary in a research institute would be a fellowship of around Rs 3,000 per month. A qualified biotechnologist would find place in a private company at around Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 per month. If one wants to make more money, then one will have to look at options to go abroad.
At present there is a shortage of trained people in this field. The DBT is trying to promote the subject in schools and colleges. A short-term training for biotechnologists who wish to work in the industry is organised by Biotech Consortium India Ltd.
It may be said that for a person with an academic bent of mind, biotechnology offers a unique opportunity to work in a virgin field. All other branches of science are saturated. Biotechnology is an emerging field all over the world. It is this science which will yield the wonder drugs of tomorrow as also new varieties of plants and animals. Since scientists can patent the fruits of their research, the possibility of making a name and a large fortune is also not ruled out. The area thus is very exciting and has tremendous possibilities. The phenomenal growth of the biotechnology industry has also led to a number of high-paying opportunities.
The Biotechnology Industry
The biotechnology industry is one of the fastest growing industry of the decade. Valued at Rs 100 crore in 1989, it is expected to be around Rs 3500 crore by the end of the century. A number of companies have entered the field, some with foreign collaborations, opening tremendous job opportunities. The private sector has increased operations and leapfrogged over the DBT. A biotechnologist need not worry about growth of opportunities in the next few years.
There is the Vital Mallya Scientific Research Foundation, run by the United Breweries group, which has tied up with a French firm and the University of Leicester. The Spic Science Foundation is into tissue culture and bio-pesticides and has obtained refinance assistance from NABARD. Another company, Advanced Biomedicals Ltd is into enzyme production. The drug companies which have entered biotech are Cadilla, Wipro Biomed, Lupin Laboratories and Ranbaxy. Gene banks are also being set up and government organisations into it are the National Facility for Plant Tissue Repository and the National Bureau of Plant and Genetic Resources, New Delhi.
State governments of Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are developing biotech industry with DBT assistance. The country’s first biotech park is in Kerala.
Financial institutions like the IDBI and IFCI have got together to form the Biotech Consortium India Ltd in 1990, to facilitate technology transfer and financial assistance. Institutional support will push up growth of the industry and many more companies will enter the business. Tax benefits are available for companies specialising in biotech, which is boosting the industry.
With so much activity in biotech industry, students can look forward to good job prospects. As research yields more technologies, industry is likely to commercialise them at an increasing pace. Multinational companies are expected to come to India in a big way as the cost of hiring an Indian scientist is much less than his Western counterpart.
With so many laboratories coming up both in the public and private sector, companies will scout campuses to look for talent. The Baroda based Sun Pharmaceuticals advertises abroad for biochemists and biotechnicians.
Though the field is wide open, one may add that as in every other field, it is the committed professional who will find personal career growth. It is therefore important to be good in one’s field.
Do you have an aptitude for a career in biotechnology?
Answer these eight questions for an indication
Do you like doing experiments with tissues of living things?
Do you have the patience to work on something that may take two or three days, or even longer, for an experiment? Would you be composed if the expected results do not show up after repeated experiments?
Do you like reading the latest scientific books and journals?
Do you feel comfortable being in a virgin field where you may discover something and become rich and famous after some years; or that your research for 10 years may not yield anything fruitful?
Can you work with fellow scientists as a team?
Are you a good researcher: creative and inquisitive, with the ability to look beyond a set of statistics to discover something meaningful?
Are you an introvert?
Are you fascinated by the science of living things?
If you answred ‘yes’ to any six of the eight questions, chances are that you will be happy in biotechnology research. For a detailed analysis, see a counsellor.