What is a Biologist?

Biology is the scientific study of life and living organisms, and can focus on so many things - how an organism has come to exist, how it is built, how it grows, how it functions, what it does, or where it lives.

A biologist is a scientist who studies these organisms and their relationship to their environment.

What does a Biologist do?

Biologists study humans, animals, plants and bacteria to gain a better understanding of how the body and nature works, and how external factors may influence each organism. Studying these things can be very complex and incredibly diverse, as there are millions of living things to study and ways to study them.

A biologist using a microscope to view the objects being studied.

It is impossible to be an expert in the whole field of biology. Because of this, biologists will often choose to specialize in a particular field and study this area in intricate detail. They will use basic and advanced methods of research to gather data in order to prove or disprove theories about how a specific organism works.

Biologists can work in macroscopic or microscopic biology. Macroscopic biology involves objects that are measurable and visible to the naked eye. Microscopic biology, on the other hand, requires microscopes to view the objects being studied. It is common for biologists to engage in both types of research at one point or another.

Biologists that perform fundamental research seek to understand what mechanisms control the functioning of living matter. Biologists involved in applied research try to develop or improve processes in areas such as medicine and industry.

Each type of biologist has a specific job, just like each animal, plant, or other organism in this world has an important part to play in the ecosystem being studied. There are ten main sub-branches of biology one can choose to explore. Within these sub-branches are various types of biology careers one can specialize in:

Anatomy is the branch of biology (and medicine) that deals with the study of internal structures within living organisms. It dates back over 2,000 years to the ancient greeks, and is separated into three areas: human anatomy, animal anatomy (zootomy), and plant anatomy (phytotomy).

Human anatomy studies the structures of the human body and delves into the way that internal parts of humans interact with each other to form a functional unit. This is key to understanding health and healthcare.

Human anatomy can be divided into gross anatomy (or macro anatomy) which refers to structures that are visible to the naked eye, and microscopic anatomy (or histology) which refers to the cells and tissues that are too small to been seen with the naked eye.

Animal anatomy studies the structures of the animal body in order to understand and recognize the normal so as to determine the abnormal. This is critical in being able to diagnose diseases, determine injuries, understand growth processes, and physical limitations of certain animal species.

Animal anatomy is essential when working with animals in any capacity and is the foundation of any further study with animals.

Plant anatomy studies the internal structures of plants, usually at the cellular level, and often involves the sectioning of tissues and microscopy.

A plant cell has a strong wall made of cellulose that gives it a rigid shape. Plant cells differ from animal cells in that they also have chloroplasts (chloroplasts capture sunlight and the sun's energy and convert it into nourishment). Specialized cells are organized into tissues that perform certain functions, and the veins of a plant make sure that water, nutrients, and minerals are distributed throughout the plant.

Plant anatomy is divided into the following structural categories: flower anatomy, leaf anatomy, stem anatomy, fruit/seed anatomy, wood anatomy, and root anatomy.

Morphology is the branch of biology that studies the structure of living organisms, the relationships between their structures, and the specific structural features. This includes the outward appearance, or external morphology (shape, structure, colour, pattern, size), as well as the internal structure (internal morphology) such as bones and organs.

Morphology encompasses the study of biological structures from the macroscopic to the molecular. It is extremely important to physicians, to veterinarians, and to plant pathologists, as they are all concerned with the causes and types of structural changes that can result from specific diseases.

Histology (or microanatomy) is the branch of biology that deals with the microscopic study of plant and animal tissues. The study of organs (organology) and the study of cells (cytology) also fall under the topic of histology.

Histopathology is the branch of histology that involves the microscopic identification and study of diseased tissue. The correct diagnosis of cancer and other diseases depends on a histopathological examination of tissue samples performed by physicians and pathologists. Diagnostic information can then be determined based on what they observe.

Histotechnology is the area of histology that involves preparing tissues for microscopic examination. Histotechnicians, histotechnologists, histology technologists, histology technicians, and laboratory technicians are the personnel who are trained to prepare these specimens.

Ecology is the branch of biology that deals with studying the relationship and interaction of organisms amongst themselves and with their environment. Simply put, ecology helps us understand the interdependence between people and the natural world.

Ecologists do research on the relationships between living things and their environment, as well as the consequences these relationships can, and do, have on the environment. They may also teach others to understand and appreciate the natural world we live in by educating local communities about environmental issues and ecosystems in their area.

Physiology is the branch of biology that studies the mechanisms and functions of living organisms that work within a living system. This field can be divided into animal physiology (including humans); plant physiology; cellular physiology; and microbial physiology. In all areas, the focus is on how organs, organisms, organ systems, cells, and biomolecules that exist in a living system are able to carry out their chemical and physical functions.

The field of physiology has given birth to some of the most active areas of today's biological sciences, such as neuroscience, endocrinology, and immunology.

Cytology is the branch of biology that deals with the study of structure, function and composition of cells. It falls under the umbrella of pathology, as this specialty can determine and diagnose diseases and certain conditions by examining tissue samples from the body. Examinations can be carried out by looking at blood, urine, and spinal fluid; from material that is drawn out (aspirated) by suction into a syringe; or from specimens that are scraped or washed (for example, a cervical smear).

In order to carry out the cytologic evaluation, the material to be examined needs to be spread onto a glass slide and then stained. A pathologist will then examine the individual cells in the sample by using a microscope.

A cytologist looking at a glass slide in order to examine a tissue sample.

Embryology is the branch of biology and medicine that deals with the study of embryos and their prenatal developmental changes after the formation of the zygote (a zygote is a fertilized egg cell that results from the union of a female egg with a male sperm). Embryology also encompasses teratology, which is the study of congenital disorders that occur before birth.

The term embryo (in humans) alludes to the sphere of dividing cells from when the zygote attaches itself in the uterus wall until the completion of the eighth week after conception. Past the eighth week after conception, the developing human is then called a fetus.

Embryologists can work in clinical research, or work with doctors to assist patients with reproductive health issues or patients needing reproductive support. Clinical embryologists assist with in vitro fertilization, are responsible for retrieving eggs, and for running tests on them. Some embryologists choose to further their careers by becoming fertility researchers, senior embryologists, professors, and andrologists.

Taxonomy is the branch of biology that includes the identification, description, classification, and naming of organisms on the basis of shared characteristics. Specific organisms are grouped together and ranked. These groupings of a certain rank can then be put together to become a super-group of a higher rank, thereby creating a taxonomic hierarchy.

A taxonomist is a biologist that groups organisms into categories. Duties may include studying the structure of a species, mapping its DNA, photographing or sketching it, collecting specimens, and examining and dissecting the specimen under a microscope.

Although more than one million species of plants and animals have already been discovered and identified by taxonomists, researchers estimate that there are more than two billion species currently existing in the world. It’s the quest of the taxonomist to discover as many of these plant and animal species as possible and to share their findings with the world.

Genetics is the branch of biology that deals with the study of transmission of hereditary characters from one generation to the next. The basic unit of heredity is the gene, and every living thing contains genetic material that makes up DNA molecules. Genes are like instructions that tell your body how to make all that it needs to survive and grow. This genetic material is passed on when organisms reproduce.

Geneticists evaluate, diagnose, and manage patients with hereditary conditions or congenital malformations as well as counsel patients with genetic disorders. They hope to be able to use this genetic information to understand how the body works and what happens when it doesn't work quite right. They also hope to use this genetic information to diagnose, treat, prevent and cure many illnesses in the future. This knowledge can also lead to more effective medicines and treatments.

Paleontology is the branch of biology that deals with the study of fossils to determine an organism's evolution. It is the scientific study of life that existed before the Holocene Epoch (roughly 11,700 years before present).

Paleontology is a cross between biology and geology, and uses techniques taken from biochemistry, mathematics, and engineering. This has enabled paleontologists to discover the history of life (body fossil and trace fossil evidence) almost all the way back to about 3.8 billion years ago.

There are several areas of study within paleontology that one can choose from:

Biostratigraphy - The study of the vertical distribution of fossils in rocks
Invertebrate Paleontology - The study of fossils of animals without backbones
Paleobotany - The study of plant fossils
Micropaleontology - The study of fossils of single-celled organisms
Vertebrate Paleontology - The study of fossils of animals with backbones
Paleoecology - The study of ancient ecosystems and how they developed
Taphonomy - The study of how fossils form and are preserved

Biotechnology is the branch of biology that deals with the study of applications of biological processes for the benefit of mankind and the planet. Biotechnology has given our modern world breakthrough products and technologies that help fight diseases, feed the hungry, use cleaner energy, reduce our environmental footprint, and that produce more efficient, safer, and cleaner manufacturing processes.

There are currently greater than 250 biotechnology vaccines and health care products that are available to people. Many of these products are for previously untreatable diseases.

According to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization: "More than 13.3 million farmers around the world use agricultural biotechnology to increase yields, prevent damage from insects and pests and reduce farming's impact on the environment. And more than 50 biorefineries are being built across North America to test and refine technologies to produce biofuels and chemicals from renewable biomass, which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

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What is the workplace of a Biologist like?

Most biologists are employed by governmental agencies, universities, or private industry laboratories. Many biologists at universities are also professors, and spend most of their time teaching students research methods, assisting with the development of the students' projects, as well as working on their own projects.

Biological scientists employed by private industries and by the government are able to focus more on their own personal projects and those assigned by their superiors. Some examples of biologists likely to be working in private industries are zoologists and ecologists, who could be employed by zoos and environmental agencies.

The area of biology that one is employed in will determine if more time will be spent in the laboratory or outside in the field. Histotechnologists, for example, work in a laboratory environment, as their work involves preparing tissues for microscopic examination. Botanists, ecologists, and zoologists, on the other hand, spend a lot of their time in the field, studying plants and animals in various climates and habitats while often living in primitive conditions.

In general, most biological scientists do not experience much in the way of dangerous situations. Those studying dangerous or toxic organisms have a series of special precautions they take to prevent contamination and any possibility of spreading viruses or bacteria.

Biologists are also known as:
Biological Scientist