Demystifying and elevating the role of biotechnologists

“I am interested in Medical Biotechnology”, a vivacious pre-university student once said to me, her eyes sparkling at the thought of pursuing her tertiary studies in the biological sciences, “but I am hesitating because I have this notion that there will be no career opportunities for me in Malaysia!” 

Such are the sentiments that people frequently hear from youths and their well-meaning, concerned parents. In this post-pandemic age, I no longer encounter individuals who are sceptical of the importance of the biological sciences, life sciences, or medical sciences. 

However, many have voiced their concerns that there seems to be a lack of well-paying, fulfilling jobs in the biological sciences in Malaysia. These concerns are, of course, well-justified. If one studies law, one can become a lawyer; if one studies engineering, one becomes an engineer. A pharmacy student can look forward to becoming a pharmacist, while a medical student is on the path to becoming a medical doctor. 

The destiny of a student of the biological sciences, however, is not immediately clear, and for good reason. The career paths for biological sciences graduates are just as diverse as the field itself, ranging from sales, research and development, and communication, to education in various subfields in the medical sciences, agriculture, life sciences and conservation science.   

The Malaysian biotechnology and life sciences industry is growing rapidly. Since the commencement of Malaysia’s biotechnology initiatives in the mid-1990s, the Malaysian government has maintained its strong commitment to promoting the development of this industry by funding research and development, attracting investments from foreign industries, and encouraging bio entrepreneurship among local scientists. 

Multinationals, including pharmaceutical companies, developers of medical devices, organizations that run clinical trials, and manufacturers of diagnostics products and services already have a strong presence in the country. Adding to the ecosystem are numerous home-grown enterprises, which include research centres, biotechnology start-ups, digital healthcare platforms, wellness testing providers, local pharmaceutical companies, and cosmetics manufacturers. As DNA sequencing technology becomes increasingly accessible, we are poised to see the mainstreaming of products and services aimed at providing personalized genomics (that’s all your genetic information) and microbiome (that’s the genetic information of all the microbes hanging out on your body!) testing. 

Yet, as our anecdote above shows, most individuals associate the biological sciences with a narrow selection of potential career paths. The prevailing notion to many readers is that biological sciences graduates are destined to be shuttered away in the laboratories within the winding depths of a hospital.

Out of sight, but working hard to ensure that medical tests, results on which life and death decisions often hinge, are performed accurately and with rigour. In truth, biological sciences graduates are everywhere, climbing corporate ladders in the pharmaceutical or insurance industries, formulating products, and bringing a much-needed focus to the Asian populations in health and medical research. Recently, a larger number of graduates have begun analysing the spools of genomics data that have begun to spill forth, harbingers of a greater deluge that is soon to come. 

My humble opinion is that the disconnect between the public’s perception of biological sciences graduates’ career pathways and the true nature of the industry is on us. The misperceptions are due to a lack of communication on our part with the wider society. It is high time biological sciences companies become household names, much like how AstraZeneca and Pfizer already have thanks to their COVID-19 vaccines. 

Let us no longer lose the next generation of brilliant Malaysian scientists! 

By Assoc. Prof. Dr Felicia Chung Fei Lei, Associate Professor, School of Medical and Life Sciences, Sunway University  

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