The technician in a molecular biology laboratory is a resourceful scientist who specializes in the various experimental techniques critical to the mission of the laboratory. The work offers many rewards beyond the financial ones. For example, one of the rewards of working as a laboratory technician lies in being part of a team dedicated to scientific discovery. Another rewarding aspect of the laboratory technician position is the need for continual learning, as new scientific techniques replace older ones.
Skills of the Laboratory Technician
Technicians must possess a variety of skills, depending on the work being done in the laboratory in which they work. For example, a technician in a laboratory that studies human genetic polymorphisms will be skilled in the techniques of DNA isolation and DNA sequencing. DNA may be isolated from cultured human cells, which the technician would grow, or from tissue biopsies or blood samples. The technician must exercise great care to prevent accidental contamination of the samples.
Following (chemical) extraction of DNA from the material, the technician will amplify the region of the gene under investigation in an enzyme-catalyzed DNA sequencing reaction. The reaction products, which are pieces of DNA of various lengths, are loaded by the technician onto a thin gel and separated from one another according to size by applying an electric current to the gel. A computer-controlled laser excites fluorescent dye molecules that the technician has chemically attached to the DNA, and a photodetector records the color. The laboratory technician will operate the DNA sequencing machine, supervise the electronic data collection, and, in general, assure the accuracy of the DNA sequence obtained. Good communication skills are an important part of a technician's qualifications, as is the ability to follow (and give) instructions correctly.
In a protein structure laboratory, on the other hand, the technician must have expertise in protein purification. Since relatively large amounts of protein may be required for structure determination, the gene encoding the protein may be placed into bacteria using recombinant DNA techniques. The bacteria can then be induced to produce (express) significant quantities of the protein. The technician is in charge of growing the bacteria and seeing whether the protein is properly expressed. Next, the technician breaks open the bacterial cells by mechanical means, and purifies (separates) the protein of interest away from contaminating proteins and nucleic acids using a series of chromatographic techniques. The technician must know how to detect and quantify proteins and enzymes .
Qualifications and Compensation
Often, a laboratory technician can demonstrate expertise in a wide variety of experimental techniques. This type of employee is highly sought after by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. It is generally expected that a technician in a molecular biology work setting will have a bachelor's or master's degree in biology, biochemistry, or chemistry. While many employers are willing to provide on-the-job training for laboratory technicians, a well-qualified technician will have at least some experience with techniques commonly used in biochemistry, genetics, and cell biology.
A laboratory technician who has just received a bachelor's or master's degree may receive an annual salary of $18,000 to $36,000 or more, depending on the employer (industry, academia, or government), the geographical location, and the supply of and demand for qualified technicians. Salaries increase with experience, technical expertise, and responsibility, particularly in industry, where many opportunities exist for the laboratory technician to climb the career ladder.
Samuel E. Bennett
and Dale Mosbaugh
Laboratory technicians do almost all of the hands-on work in scientific research, development, and analysis. One of the benefits of being a laboratory technician is being the first to see experimental outcomes, whether they are prize-winning projects or more routine medical exams.
The different types of jobs that laboratory technicians have and the skills and training required for those jobs can vary tremendously. For example, a laboratory technician working on a research project might operate an electron microscope, isolate DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), make behavioral observations of animals, monitor pharmaceutical effects in test subjects, or monitor environmental quality. In a clinical laboratory, a laboratory technician may examine blood samples for cell counts, examine tissue samples for parasites , or test fluids for chemical contaminants or drugs. In industrial production environments, laboratory technicians may conduct product quality tests and monitor product quality control. In all settings, laboratory technicians work with the most modern and sophisticated laboratory and computer equipment available. Potential employers include government and private research laboratories, universities, hospitals, and private industries. These employers may have research, development, clinical, forensic , or production-oriented objectives. With growth in technology, the job market for laboratory technicians is expected to expand.
Education and training for a laboratory technician is based in science and technology. Preparation in high school should include college preparatory courses that will support extensive college requirements for mathematics and science. Entry-level positions for laboratory technicians almost always require a two-year associate's or a four-year bachelor's degree in a scientific area (commonly biology, chemistry, physics, biotechnology, or natural resources). In some cases, a master's of science degree or professional certification program and exam must be completed. Almost all beginning laboratory technicians receive additional on-the-job training, and laboratory technicians should expect to continue updating their education and training as technology advances.
see also Medical Assistant; Microscopist
Michael G. Scott
U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook. <http://stats.bls.gov/ocohome.htm>.
A laboratory technician is an individual who, under the direct supervision of a laboratory scientist, processes and prepares samples from humans, animals, food, water, soil, and air for examination and testing and who performs routine laboratory tests using written standard testing protocols. In some public health clinics, the laboratory technician is also responsible for collecting the specimens, preparing specimens for shipment to reference laboratories, and for preparing and distributing the reports of the test results. The laboratory technician may also be responsible for routine quality control procedures such as recording temperatures of refrigerators, freezers, and water baths. Additionally, the laboratory technician prepares reagents necessary for testing.
Kathleen L. Meckstroth.
(see also: Assurance of Laboratory Testing Quality; Diagnostic Testing for Communicable Disease; Laboratory Services; Practice Standards; Reference Laboratory )