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Career Profile: Medical Scientist

Part I. An Introduction To Medical Science

What do Alexander Fleming, Edward Jenner, and Louis Pasteur have in common? They all made groundbreaking discoveries that significantly contributed to human health and the field of medical science. Of course, not every medical scientist will make as big of a splash, but they all contribute to the greater good: improving human health.

In more recent years, AIDS and cancer research have played a major role in the medical science profession. This branch of medical science recorded an important milestone earlier this year when the National Institute of Health announced that a baby born with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was cured after an aggressive treatment plan.

Leaving your mark on the world through scientific medical research may seem like a pipe dream, but imagine where we would be today without these visionaries.

Part II. What Does A Medical Scientist Do?

You can find medical scientists in universities, government labs, hospitals, and the private medical sector plugging away to find treatment plans and cures to human diseases and illnesses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), medical scientists held about 100,000 jobs in 2010, with 35% focused on scientific research and development services.

Job Responsibilities: There is no typical day in the life of a medical scientist. While the role of a medical scientist working for a university often requires writing grant proposals to fund their research, a private sector medical scientist’s funding is results-driven and they have to present their research to non-scientific professionals. Depending on their employer, medical scientists develop pharmaceuticals and medical instruments, conduct clinical trials, experiment on animals and humans, and consult patients suffering from a wide range of conditions.

Working Conditions: Medical scientists sometimes spend up to 60-70 hours per week conducting research and documenting their findings. Working with hazardous material is often inherent to this job, but precautions are in place to provide adequate protection. Medical scientists usually do most of their work independently, but technicians often fill in supportive roles.

Part III: The Path to Becoming a Medical Scientist

Medical scientists who make significant discoveries are the brightest of the bunch. Getting to this level requires a strong educational foundation and the tenacity to ostensibly spend years researching the same subject.

Education: Medical scientists start their education with undergraduate programs in fields like biology or chemistry. From there, students can either pursue a Ph.D. program specializing in an area like genetics or pathology, or they can combine their Ph.D. program with an M.D. program at a medical school. Either way, the educational process can last up to eight years. Exceptional course work and test scores from a leading university are critical to the success of a medical science student.

Qualifications: Once students have earned their degrees, additional licenses, independent studies, and published work will help them stand out among their peers. Additionally, good communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and observation skills are important qualities to have as a medical scientist.

Part IV: Medical Science Career Overview

As technology advancements provide momentum for medical research and discovery, medical science has become a truly exciting career arena. Whether your focus is the shingles virus, seasonal allergies, or pancreatic cancer, modern-day tools help shine new light on old subjects.

“Early in practice, if I had a clinical question to research, I had to go to the library, pull out multiple years of the Index Medicus, look up the topic, write down the references, go to the stacks and pull the volumes of journals, find the article, read the article, go to the copy machine and make a copy. … If I were lucky, I would have my answer in about four hours,” Dr. John Messmer, associate professor at the Penn State College of Medicine told ABC News. “Now I can be on rounds and in five minutes have more information on the topic than I need. On my iPod Touch, I can look up a medication, check the formulary to see if it’s covered, check for interactions with a patient’s other meds and double check details of the pharmacology of the med, plus quickly review the problem I am treating. And I don’t even have to go online.”

Career Outlook: The BLS projects the medical science field will grow 36% between 2010 and 2020. As the aging Baby Boom generation requires more medical care and our society becomes more dependent on pharmaceuticals, the demand for drug development and medical research stands to increase even further.

Salary: In 2011, the median medical scientist salary was $76,130. Those working in doctor’s offices made the most annually, roughly $120,000, but they held a small percentage of jobs in the industry. By comparison, the typical medical scientist will find employment in research and development and make $95,000 a year.

Employment Opportunities: Most medical scientists work for universities, private medical institutions, and government agencies. Those working for the government spend the majority of their time conducting experiments and clinical trials with federal funding. At the university level, medical scientists research new methodologies and petition for funding through grant writing. The main focus of medical scientists in the private sector, such as pharmaceutical companies, is to develop drugs and medical devices, seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration before new products can be sold.

Part V: Medical Science: The Next Frontier

The medical science profession is constantly evolving. While many of the most famous medical science discoveries happened during the 20th century, the future of medical advancements knows no bounds. In just the last decade, we’ve been able to access research from the Human Genome Project with the touch of a fingertip; minimally invasive surgeries have significantly reduced patient suffering and shortened recovery time; and advances in in vitro fertilization have revolutionized parenthood.

“You do this job because at the end of the day you love it,” Dr. Elizabeth Rapley, a research scientist at The Institute of Cancer Research, told The Guardian. “Science doesn’t always go the way you want it — experiments fail, often for a very long time, you work long hours and some of it is a grind (grants, ethics and admin), but every now and then you have a magic moment where you get a result and you say a-ha!”

So, do you think you have what it takes to make the next big medical breakthrough? Visit these websites for more information on medical science careers:

American Association for the History of Medicine

National Science Foundation

National Institutes of Health

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

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