UNKNOWN to many, biomedical scientists are an integral component of modern healthcare services. In fact, any tests done or samples taken from patients would most likely have been studied by biomedical scientists who then work with doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals in the diagnosis and treatment of patients.
However, as these scientists are not in the frontline of the health service – as doctors, nurses and paramedics are – their role is often underplayed and unnoticed.
In reality, doctors treat their patients based on results of vital tests and investigations done by biomedical scientists. The primary task of a biomedical scientist is to do research into the causes as well as the cures of all sorts of ailments and diseases, from food poisoning to cancer. According to the European Association for Professions in Biomedical Science, very few hospitals across Europe would be able to function without the support of biomedical scientists.
“Biomedical science is the engine of modern medicine. Doctors rely on biomedical scientists to diagnose diseases and treat patients effectively,” said the association on its official website (http://www.epbs.net/science.htm).
Dr Johnson Stanslas, a lecturer with Universiti Putra Malaysia’s department of biomedical sciences, believes that if nurtured and developed, biomedical sciences could well be an area that can propel the country into becoming a developed nation.
“We must however start now to create awareness and interest among the young in scientific research in this field. At the moment, medicine is the preferred choice of every parent for his child. Everyone is crazy about chasing after a medical degree. Everything else, including biomedical science, is an option to fall back on if there are no medical seats left. There must be a paradigm shift,” says Dr Stanslas.
While the field of biomedical science is fully established in the United States, Europe and even Singapore, the same cannot be said for Malaysia. We're still a long way from it, says Dr Stanslas.
“A large part of our job is research and to do so, we need funding. However research grants available to us are few and far between.
“The government, private sector and the public can support the industry by coming forward to sponsor (biomedical scientists’)
research activities. We have been talking about increasing research capabilities in local universities but to be able to do so requires serious investment and funding.
“The government should also do more in terms of creating awareness on the importance of this field. Only when people (the private sector and public) see and understand the importance of our research can they appreciate our job and support us financially,” says Dr Stanslas.
The department of biomedical sciences, which comes under UPM's Medical and Health Sciences Faculty, recently made news for its collaboration with local phytopharmaceutical company Autoimmune Sdn Bhd in testing several local herbal plant extracts for anti-breast cancer activities.
The department’s Cancer Research and Drug Discovery Group which is headed by Dr Johnson, was appointed by Autoimmune to test 35 water-based plant extracts for their anti-cancer potential.
“We need more companies like Autoimmune to come forward and sponsor research. We have the capacity and expertise but lack funding,” says Dr Stanslas.
Though biomedical science students are not trained to treat patients, they study subjects that are broadly similar to the pre-clinical components of a medical degree – anatomy, immunology, genetics, toxicology, physiology, pathology and others.
They also cover a range of other subjects like molecular biology, the screening and evaluation of new drugs, and the relationship between the environment and health.
What qualifications do you need to become a biomedical scientist?
The cut-off point to enter this programme is quite high and students must be strong in chemistry and biology. Apart from that, the only other thing a student should have is a keen interest in research.
What got you interested in biomedical science?
I have always been interested in research. Even in primary school, when we (pupils) had to fill in our ambition on the “blue cards” which record our personal information, I listed scientist as my second choice. My first choice was to be an international footballer, not a doctor.
And, in my undergraduate years, I wanted to pursue cancer research and my Masters’ research was on breast cancer and my PhD was on experimental cancer chemotherapy.
What sort of personality best suits this profession?
Once again, if you are not interested in research, biomedical science is probably not for you. The most important criterion here is interest. Without interest, a student won’t achieve his full capacity. In my laboratory (at UPM) for example, I have some very hard working students but they just do not have
interest in the field.
They are students who could not get into medicine and have been placed into biomedical science. There were a few (students) who, upon graduating, went on to pursue a medical degree oversees because that was what they wanted!
What is the best part of your job?
It’s a really wonderful job as biomedical science is multidisciplinary and there are many areas you can go into. And you can do
really good research if you are not limited by teaching demands and limited funds.
It is also very exciting being with the medical fraternity – working with the clinicians and patients in the diagnosis and treatment processes.
What are the career prospects for bio medical science graduates?
At the moment, a large percentage of biomedical science students go into postgraduate study and research. Others work in pharmaceutical companies or in government hospitals and research companies as science officers or even sales representatives for drug companies.
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