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What do Cell Biologists Do?
What is Cell Biology?
Cell biology is the study of the fundamental unit of life - the humble cell. Cell Theory states that all living things are made up of tiny units called 'cells.' Cytology, the study of cell structure, was born in 1665 when Robert Hooke used a self-built microscope to examine thin slices of cork. The compartments he viewed under the microscope he named cellulae; Latin for 'little rooms.' (Actually what Hooke observed were not cells at all but empty cell walls that make up tree bark)
As microscopes improved and more detail was gathered about cells, Theodor Schwann began to develop cell theory. Postulated in 1839, Schwann's theory had two basic tenets:
- All organisms consist of one or more cells
- The cell is the basic unit of structure for all organisms.
In 1855, German physiologist Rudolf Virchow realised that cells could only arise by the division of other, preexisting cells - coining the term omnis cellula e cellula. This, when translated, is the third tenet of modern cell theory
3. All cells arise only from preexisting cells.
Put simply, cell biology is the study of both the basic structure of all organisms and the basic unit of reproduction. This makes an understanding of cell biology fundamental to all other aspects of biology.
Timeline of Cell Biology
Robert Hooke observes cork through a microscope. He calls the regular, spartan boxes 'cells,' after a monk's living quarters
van Leeuwenhoek discovers protozoa
van Leeuwenhoek discovers bacteria
Schleiden and Schwann propose Cell Theory
Virchow adds to Cell theory "omnis cellula e cellula"
Ruska builds first Transmission Electron Microscope
DNA as hereditary material
First Scanning Electron Microscope developed
Sheep Cell successfully cloned
What do Cell Biologists Do?
Cell Biologists are heavily involved in fertility treatment, cancer research, neurological research (e.g. Alzheimer's), sport science, food technology, genetic engineering, embryology, development, and disease diagnosis and screening...to name but a few. With the cell being the basis of life on Earth, modern cell biology is one of the most dynamic disciplines in biology, if not in science as a whole
The modern cell biologist cannot only concern themselves with cytology (the study of cellular structure). Without the contribution biochemistry and genetics, the workings of the cell would still be a mystery. Cell biologists must therefore have a working knowledge of all three disciplines. Due to this, it is immensely difficult to pin down what an 'average' cell biologist does - it is like saying "what does a scientist do?" or "what does an engineer do?"
There are, however, some common strands. Most cell biologists will spend some of their time cell culturing (growing cells) and conducting cell assays (testing them with/for something). But there the similarities between researchers end. When I worked in a research lab for the British Heart Foundation, I worked with cells cultured from rodent hearts and HeLa cells. Other biologists in the lab were working on cancerous cell lines, whilst still others worked with bacteria.
Whilst the practical details of the job can vary, the paperwork is somewhat more generic. Experimental results must be written up and analysed. Staff meetings are often used to share recent results. Most labs require their scientists to report relevant papers from other institutions to keep staff up-to-date with the most recent developments in their field. The job therefore requires a lot of reading and researching.
The Inner Life of a Cell
What Skills does a Cell Biologist Need?
The most important traits for a prospective cell biologist are:
- an eye for accuracy and manual dexterity - both vital for intricate lab work;
- strong subject knowledge and enough insight to interpret your results;
- excellent written and verbal communication skills;
- competency with ICT and basic cytological techniques (cell culturing, separation, and visualisation, as well as basic cell assays)
It must be stressed that those without a firm basis in mathematics will struggle pursuing a career in cell biology. Raw data is (usually) useless; it requires some manipulation using tools such as statistics. Papers published in journals are the lifeblood of academic institutions. To understand results from other institutions, let alone publish your own, requires good mathematical knowledge. Some institutions employ dedicated statisticians, but a firm basis in stats yourself will really help you stand out from the crowd.
The other thing you need is mental toughness. Working as a research scientist you must be prepared for failure - many of your experiments will fail...or worse...come back inconclusive. Experiments can take days and weeks and, without determination, a lack of success can grind you down. This only serves to make to 'eureka' moment all the more satisfying.
What do Cell Biologists Make?
Apart from a positive contribution to society? At some point in the research into any potential job, the question of money inevitably crops up. Salaries depend on experience, whether you are working in academia or industry, how recognised you are in the field, how large a team you lead etc. Below are cell biologist wages for different levels:
Cell Biologist Salaries
Entry level technician (BSc)
Research Scientist (MSc/MRes)
£22,000 - £27,500
Postdoc Research Associate (PhD)
£26,500 - £35,000
Entry Level (PhD)
Senior Researcher (10yrs)
£35,000 - £57,000
Up to £120,000pa
Cell Biology - Professional Bodies
How to Become a Cell Biologist?
The road to becoming a cell biologist should be one that starts with a love of science. For research associate positions, at least a Bachelor's degree - preferably with honours - is required. If you are looking to become a research scientist-proper, a PhD is necessary. the usefulness of MSc or MPhil qualifications is debated - they can give you a useful foot on the ladder and can give you an insight into the life of a full-time researcher so you can see if pursuing this career is right for you.
With the job market being so competitive, you need something to tip you over the edge. Any work experience programmes offered during the course of your university studies are highly beneficial. If there is the option to study any modules in mathematics, statistics or computer modelling (particularly practical courses), then take them up. Skill/qualifications in bioinformatics, biostatistics and genomics are highly sought-after in the new generation of cell biologist.
Also, get as much practice and experience as you can in basic techniques in cell biology. Practice preparing samples for visualisation, preparing cell assays, sterile technique etc. Make sure you are up-to-date with the latest advancements in your chosen field and ensure your CV is finely-tuned to the job you want.
It may also be beneficial to sign up for the professional body for your chosen discipline. In the UK, the Society of Biology offers post-nominal letters to all members and awards Chartered Biologist status. Membership of such bodies is vital to network with other scientists: it may be through these contacts, rather than traditional job vacancies, that you secure your first position. Start building these networks early in University
Where Next? Cell Biology
- Cell Biology Animations
Animations of some of the key processes in Cell Biology
- The Biology Project: Cell Biology
A resource suitable for High School students. Looks at all aspects of cell biology in an easy-to-understand way. Published by the University of Arizona
- Cell Biology | Learn Science at Scitable
Background information on Cell Biology from the Nature:Scitable team. Aimed at those with a firm grasp of High School Biology.