by: Masooda Omari
From the very beginning, my interests were mainly medicine and pharma, however, going to pharmacy or medical school wasn’t on my list as I was looking for something that didn’t limit my career to one thing. I would like to share very significant steps I took that helped me prepare for the career I look forward to today as I am in my last semester at The Johns Hopkins University Masters in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics program.
I started off with biology and chemistry courses at Northern Virginia Community College. I had the privilege to be a student to the best faculty who are outstanding in supporting and encouraging their students. Luckily, the community colleges in Virginia are exceptional in providing the hands-on professional experience to students in any field through its courses and curriculum to prepare them for the real world.
Attending classes is not sufficient. Therefore, I wanted to get involved with the reality of the field. In addition to using online resources, I wanted to dig more and see for myself what was out there. I went into hospitals and volunteered for months, as I analyzed and observed the hospital environment. I worked at a doctor’s office as a scribe, and again observed and analyzed how things worked in a general physician’s office settings. I did some bench work in a laboratory and also carried out a statistical analysis study on patients’ data as part of a clinical study. I carried out research and explored the current era of medicine and pharmacy, and I found that, as great and advanced our health system is, there is still an enormous amount of room for improvement. One of greatest weaknesses in today’s health system is that doctors prescribe drugs like statins for cholesterol to a patient who takes the drugs for a couple of months. Then, if the patient is fortunate, it will be effective. If not, then the doctor will give the patient a different type of drug for the same purpose, however, we also have to consider the negative side effects and poor quality of life as consequences of those drugs that we do not need in the first place. I have learned that next generation DNA sequencing and personalized medicine will not only address this problem, but also assist in efficiently targeting molecular causes and discovering of drugs for those targets that are 100% effective. To be part of this exciting evolution of health system is an honor.
Additionally, joining a science group or student organizations at colleges and universities is an excellent way to network with the people in your field. It is a great way to stay updated onas what other students in this field are getting involved in by discussing the courses and opportunities available. It helps one make the right decisions on the type of courses one should take at the right time. For example, I was part of a biology club at the community college. While in the club, I learned of a course called “Introduction to Biotechnology”. Many students who had already taken it recommended it to me. I took the class, and the professor from that course is still to this day my greatest mentor. This course gave me a great understanding of what biotechnology is all about from the background information to getting basic laboratory skills.
For students, one of the greatest steps is to attend talks and seminars outside of course work. There are informative seminars offered almost every day at universities that are free most of the time, not only for students but also for general public. Going to these seminars help you get informed about what is going on inside a laboratory environment or what projects are currently being researched. These will also help you decide which area of the field you would like to work on, and help you think about your future career. If you live in DC, VA, and MD, access to National Institute of Health is within reach. They offer excellent seminars on the exciting research that happens there. Almost all of them are free for the public, however registration is required for some. If you live far away, they offer live webcasts for some of them, and/or you can watch them at your convenience. This link will take you to the schedule of events that take place at NIH: https://calendar.nih.gov/app/MCalWelcome.aspx . The NIH organizes annual research festivals and poster presentation where you can meet with principle investigators and speak to them in person about their research.
It is always great to meet and greet people in your field especially if they are at higher level positions. Search for scientists and principle investigators in your particular area of interest. Email them and make an appointment with them. Speak to them about your individual goals, strengths and weaknesses. Get advice from them. They usually are happy to speak to you about their research, and then go from there. One important factor to keep in mind is to not be discouraged if your emails get ignored or if you receive a response that might sound like a rejection. Keep trying, even if you have to send out more than 200 reformatted emails.
Furthermore, signing up with scientific newsletters is very helpful with providing current information on the pharmaceutical industry. They present information on current patents, regulatory issues, drug safety, as well as recent news on discovery, research and development, preclinical and clinical trials, diagnostics, business and government policy, tools and technology. There are plenty of newsletters about biotechnology and life sciences that offer free subscriptions. You can find them by doing a Google search. Sharing and speaking about personal experiences in newsletters like HBN is also an excellent way to reach out to people who might need help or advice. Being proactive and consistent is important in today’s society. All the best.