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What do Cell Biologists Do?

Updated on April 22, 2012
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Robert Hooke compiled his seminal work, Micrographia, using a similar compound microscope. Hooke  first described (& coined the term) cellsNowadays microscopes have a much better magnification and resolving power than those available to Hooke. this is one of the key pieces of equipment available to a cell biologistTwo electron microscopes...albeit a little outdated. The electron microscope has a far greater resolving power than the light microscope. As such it can view the tiniest of detailsFor example: this is a scanning electron micrograph of the eye of a houseflyPerhaps slightly more relevent to cytology - two micrographs of the same dividing HeLa cell. On the left is an electron micrograph, on the right the same image under a powerful light microscope
Robert Hooke compiled his seminal work, Micrographia, using a similar compound microscope. Hooke  first described (& coined the term) cells
Robert Hooke compiled his seminal work, Micrographia, using a similar compound microscope. Hooke first described (& coined the term) cells | Source
Nowadays microscopes have a much better magnification and resolving power than those available to Hooke. this is one of the key pieces of equipment available to a cell biologist
Nowadays microscopes have a much better magnification and resolving power than those available to Hooke. this is one of the key pieces of equipment available to a cell biologist | Source
Two electron microscopes...albeit a little outdated. The electron microscope has a far greater resolving power than the light microscope. As such it can view the tiniest of details
Two electron microscopes...albeit a little outdated. The electron microscope has a far greater resolving power than the light microscope. As such it can view the tiniest of details | Source
For example: this is a scanning electron micrograph of the eye of a housefly
For example: this is a scanning electron micrograph of the eye of a housefly | Source
Perhaps slightly more relevent to cytology - two micrographs of the same dividing HeLa cell. On the left is an electron micrograph, on the right the same image under a powerful light microscope
Perhaps slightly more relevent to cytology - two micrographs of the same dividing HeLa cell. On the left is an electron micrograph, on the right the same image under a powerful light microscope | Source

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:

  1. All organisms consist of one or more cells
  2. 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

Date
Event
1655
Robert Hooke observes cork through a microscope. He calls the regular, spartan boxes 'cells,' after a monk's living quarters
1674
van Leeuwenhoek discovers protozoa
1683
van Leeuwenhoek discovers bacteria
1838
Schleiden and Schwann propose Cell Theory
1855
Virchow adds to Cell theory "omnis cellula e cellula"
1931
Ruska builds first Transmission Electron Microscope
1952
DNA as hereditary material
1965
First Scanning Electron Microscope developed
1996
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

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Pigmented malignant melanoma. One aspect of cell biology is cancer biology. Cell biologists are at the forefront of cancer research & treatmentAdenoid cystic carcenoma. The careful study of the morphology (shape and visible characteristics) of cells is a key part of the diagnostic process.Squamous cell carcinoma of lung tissue. Whilst morphological analysis from a cell biologist suggested the cells were cancerous, evidence from the other strands of cell biology (biochemistry and genetics) are needed for a firm diagnosis.
Pigmented malignant melanoma. One aspect of cell biology is cancer biology. Cell biologists are at the forefront of cancer research & treatment
Pigmented malignant melanoma. One aspect of cell biology is cancer biology. Cell biologists are at the forefront of cancer research & treatment | Source
Adenoid cystic carcenoma. The careful study of the morphology (shape and visible characteristics) of cells is a key part of the diagnostic process.
Adenoid cystic carcenoma. The careful study of the morphology (shape and visible characteristics) of cells is a key part of the diagnostic process. | Source
Squamous cell carcinoma of lung tissue. Whilst morphological analysis from a cell biologist suggested the cells were cancerous, evidence from the other strands of cell biology (biochemistry and genetics) are needed for a firm diagnosis.
Squamous cell carcinoma of lung tissue. Whilst morphological analysis from a cell biologist suggested the cells were cancerous, evidence from the other strands of cell biology (biochemistry and genetics) are needed for a firm diagnosis. | Source

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;
  • patience;
  • 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

UK Position
Salary (p/a)
US Position
Salary
Entry level technician (BSc)
£16,000
 
 
Research Scientist (MSc/MRes)
£22,000 - £27,500
 
 
Postdoc Research Associate (PhD)
£26,500 - £35,000
Entry Level (PhD)
$33,000
Senior Researcher (10yrs)
£35,000 - £57,000
Mean Salary
£71,310
Team Leader/Management
Up to £120,000pa
Top 10%
$102,190
UK Data from 2010 Prospects.ac.uk Survey. US Figures supplied by 2010 US Bureau of Labor Statistics National Employment Survey

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

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    • davenmidtown profile image

      David Stillwell 5 years ago from Sacramento, California

      Hello TFScientist: Another exCELLent hub... (smile) I was looking at your table of cellular achievements and scientists who added to the field of study... 1996 successful cloning of a sheep cell.. Hello Dolly ( smile)...(slight chuckle)... I thought that female bees are born from unfertilized eggs and that male bees are formed from fertilized eggs... how is it that bees are so much more advanced... then we humans... in terms of reproduction/cloning... ds

    • alliemacb profile image

      alliemacb 5 years ago from Scotland

      Fascinating hub and really useful for anyone considering entering the field of cell biology. Love the video. Voted up and awesome

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      Outstanding! I like the details you have here - so well done. It sounds like a very interesting career, and besides that, I like the sound of "Cell Biologist" - it has a flair to it.

    • cocopreme profile image

      Candace Bacon 5 years ago from Far, far away

      Very nice summary of cell biology. This is a great resource for someone who is potentially interested in cell biology as a career. Great hub!

    • huntingintime profile image

      huntingintime 5 years ago from Kent,Washington

      Nice Hub!

    • TFScientist profile image
      Author

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @davenmidtown: Nature is usually first to technological advancements - the aerofoil, pneumatics, trigger traps and cloning were all seen in nature before man figured them out!

    • TFScientist profile image
      Author

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @ Marcy: I agree that Cell Biologist has a nice ring to it - it sounds more technical than perhaps the job is

      @cocopreme: I was aiming for a summary - I'm glad I hit the nail on the head

      @alliemacb: I think the video is the best in biology - it makes the cell look like its own little world, a self-contained, automated city

    • davenmidtown profile image

      David Stillwell 5 years ago from Sacramento, California

      so true TFScientist!

    • profile image

      ProAsians 2 years ago

      Hey TFScientist, I congratulate you for this amazing summary. I'd like to ask you a question and ask for a few tips. How can I pursue this career as a cell biologist as a grade 11 student? Is it still possible or too late? As a cell biologist are we able to create personal cures or assigned?

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