THE Government has announced it is to fund the establishment by four leading universities of a National Institute for Biopharmaceutical Research and Training. The 9,000sq ft facility will receive €72m from the State over the next seven years and will be run by University College Dublin (UCD), Dublin City University (DCU), Trinity College Dublin and Institute of Technology (IT) Sligo.
This investment is good news for those considering studying biotechnology. Science fiction has often portrayed biotechnologists as the bad guys playing God with nature, but the profession can offer a rewarding and challenging career.
Donnacha O'Driscoll is general manager of the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology, a research centre based at DCU. Recently a team from the institute made a breakthrough in improving the action of anti-cancer drugs. Involvement in beneficial research such as this means job satisfaction is high in the area, according to O'Driscoll.
"There's a lot of skillsets needed. When you start out you're mostly involved in lab bench research. After a while you'll become a project manager so you'll have to plan out projects. You'll start to wonder 'where's the money coming from?', have to plan lab time for students, interact with industries and meet people, as well as doing your own lab work. It's exciting and varied but it can be stressful. You have to have some flicker of interest or passion."
While future prospects are good for biotechnology work in Ireland, he says communication and outreach programmes are becoming more important to persuade the public that scientists are working for the benefit of society. "The applied nature of biotechnology is very much to the fore now. There is a renewed buoyancy in growth in the science sector; biotechnology has helped drag things up."
Budding biotechnologists can take undergraduate courses at DCU, National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway, NUI Maynooth, University of Ulster, Athlone IT, Dublin IT or Limerick IT.
Case study: Adventures in bioscience
Niamh Keon enthuses about her career in biotechnology. "The sheer volume of activity is very rewarding. Every day there is something new." Now a senior technology analyst with the Enterprise Ireland (EI) Biotechnology Directorate, she has worked in a variety of roles since graduating with a degree in pharmacology from UCD in 1991.
"After my primary degree I registered to do a PhD. My professor at the time took a year out and went to Switzerland. I went with him and worked as a research officer for the Swiss federal government in labs in cancer research in Berne," she says. "After I came back I re-registered and did my PhD in molecular biology for three years. I then did a postdoctorate for nine months in UCD and I got a scholarship from the EU, which led me to Germany."
Keon spent three years working in the federal research labs in Germany specialising in cancer research. She returned in 2000, was employed by EI as a research officer for the biotech/pharma sector and eventually climbed to her present position.
People involved in biotechnology have to be analytical, logical and creative, an aspect that is often overlooked, according to Keon. "Scientists are always thought of as the eggheads rather than the entrepreneurs or the leading academics with a number of patents under their belts."
Public perception is one of the reasons there has been a drop-off in the numbers applying for science-based courses in recent years, but Keon says even a basic science degree can lead to an array of different job opportunities. People she studied with have become science officers with state bodies, technology transfer officers, patent attorneys, science journalists, forensic scientists and senior scientists in academia.