Mario, a biotechnology research laboratory assistant explains how he dreams of transitioning from food safety research to doing important medical research and curing diseases.
What is your job title?
Biotechnology Research Laboratory Assistant
Would you describe what you do on a typical day?
I work as an assistant in a biotechnology research lab. It may sound pretty interesting, but on a daily basis I don’t think most people would find it that exciting, because it is a very repetitive job. Mostly, I work with mammal cell lines which means spending some hours in a very cold lab, maintaining the cells and also doing some experiments on them. These cells are used by other researchers, so I don’t get to know what they are for. The rest of my day I work as a teaching assistant in a tissue culture lab for undergraduates. I enjoy this part of my job a lot more because I get to know a lot of students and I enjoy answering their questions. I prepare the cells that the students are going to use, and I also do some of their experiments myself when they are just too difficult for the students to perform.
What is your ethnicity? What kinds of discrimination have you experienced?
I am white. Sometimes I experience discrimination when visiting poor or crime-ridden parts of my city. In Latin America, there is a great gap between socioeconomic sectors, leading to a lack of politeness (sometimes even rudeness) between groups. In these cases I have only received rude or insulting comments. I have not experienced it in my job.
If you’ve experienced discrimination, in what ways have you responded and what response worked best?
Mostly I respond by ignoring people, as in my example, I think that responding in any other way might cause aggressiveness from the individual.
Where you work, how well does your company do ‘equal opportunity’? Is management white and male? How are minorities perceived and treated?
I do think the lab complies with equal opportunity guidelines. Management is run by white and Latin origin people, and I perceive an equal number of male and female individuals occupying high ranking jobs. People from minorities are treated with respect by everyone as they are hired from other countries because of their experience and capability.
What did you learn the hard way in this job and how did that happen?
I learned two things the hard way in this job. First, sometimes you will feel the time and effort you spend on the job were not wort it. There can be many reasons for this, but I think this feeling comes mainly when you can’t see how your work matters or if it has any significant impact that would cause somebody else to notice it. Second, when I exercise a lot of patience to get a job done the right way, and nevertheless it doesn’t come out as expected, seeking help from others is the best move you can make, because sometimes the answer isn’t just in patience and carefulness. Sometimes, the answer lies in the “tricks” that only experienced people know.
What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
Problem solving strategies that are not based just on logic and math would have been useful to learn in school.
How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
A professor of mine during my bachelors worked at this company, and I wanted to gain experience in lab research. If I had it to do over, I would have tried harder to work in health related research, because I ended in food technology related research, which I don’t enjoy as much.
On a good day, when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?
Meeting somebody new and having a good conversation that goes beyond the usual job talk is very enjoyable. I also like helping people in their work and knowing it really helped.
When nothing seems to go right, what kind of snafus do you handle and what do you dislike the most?
When I’m having a bad day, I may be failing to get an experiment done, or getting bad results over and over again. The ones I dislike the most are those little mistakes that can ruin a whole day’s work, just because of a sudden lack of patience.
How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
I wouldn’t define it as stressful. I live a comfortable work-life balance, mainly because the job is pretty much flexible in terms of time requirements as compared to other jobs I think.
On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction?What would it take to increase that rating?
I would rate my satisfaction as a 7. It would take me being in charge of a part of the research, not just doing the experiments, to raise my satisfaction. In other words, I would like to take part in the planning and decision making of the research project. Also a higher salary would help.
What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough considering your responsibilities?
$500 per month.
What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in this position? Of all the things you’ve done at work, what are you most proud of?
Being consulted by other, higher ranking researchers made me feel I had the potential to someday be at the same competitive level as the people that I respect and admire. I am most proud of gaining the respect and interest of undergrad students.
What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?
Admitting to making constant mistakes is very challenging. It is one thing to accept a couple of mistakes, but when you find yourself messing up again and again you might feel the need to reject what’s happening and just cover up the results and move on. But I hold on to my sense of responsibility, admitted it and kept trying.
What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
Biology, biochemistry, chemistry and medicine related studies are required. Also, laboratory working skills are needed as well as knowledge about bio-safety procedures. To succeed I would say you should go on with masters or PhD degree. It is also important to have experience with searching scientific literature and the interpretation of those materials.
What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
I would say that it is very important to define exactly what area of biotechnology is he or she most interested in. The problem is that the term biotechnology is very broad and some applications and research trends don’t have anything to do with others.
How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
3 weeks. Yes it is enough.
Are there any common myths you want to correct about what you do?
Not all biotechnology research is related to GMO’s, cloning or other subjects prone to deal with ethical issues. Misinformation about the results and objectives of these kind of studies have made most people think that this kind of research (and all biotech research) is conducted by crazy scientists that pursue selfish and nonsense dreams which are more close to sci-fi movies than reality. Although there might be examples of scientists and companies that have forgotten their sense of responsibility towards humanity (to produce valuable knowledge and non harmful technology for the world), I believe that the real danger does not lie in research itself, but in the misinformation of society. A well informed society has both the power to drive research with the potential to make a better world, or to stop that which is believed to do the opposite.
Does this job move your heart? If not, what does?
Yes it does. Not necessarily because of what I do right now… it makes me dream about what I will be able to do one day, contributing to cure terrible diseases, and that feels just great to me.
If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
Conducting my own research project. Finishing or have finished my PhD. Looking for an important health research center to work for.
Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
I have just finished my undergrad studies. I had this job while studying so that’s why I was paid such a low wage. It is very hard for someone without a masters or PhD to be able to contribute even slightly to research, and considering the hard work I put into it, I felt very disappointed sometimes. Nevertheless, I had the chance to share my knowledge and help people around me to reach their goals and I think that’s the first thing a real scientist should do before attempting greater things.