A biologist is a professional who has specialized knowledge in the field of biology, understanding the underlying mechanisms that govern the functioning of biological systems within fields such as health, technology and the environment. Biologists involved in fundamental research attempt to explore and further explain the underlying mechanisms that govern the functioning of living matter. Biologists involved in applied research attempt to develop or improve more specific processes and understanding, in fields such as medicine and industry.
Biologists are interested in understanding the underlying mechanisms that govern the functioning of living matter as well as the complex properties that emerge from the biophysical, biochemical, cellular and systemic interactions of living systems. Biologists conduct research using the scientific method to test the validity of a theory in a rational, unbiased and reproducible manner. This consists of hypothesis formation, experimentation and data analysis to establish the validity or invalidity of a scientific theory.
There are different types of biologists. Theoretical biologists use mathematical methods and develop models to understand phenomena and ideally predict future experimental results, while experimental biologists conceive experiments to test those predictions. Some biologists work on microorganisms, while others study multicellular organisms (including humans). Some investigate the nano or micro-scale, others emergent properties such as ecological interactions or cognition. There is much overlap between different fields of biology (e.g. zoology, microbiology, genetics and evolutionary biology) and due to the interdisciplinary nature of the field it is often difficult to classify a life scientist as only one of them. Many biological scientists work in research and development. Some conduct fundamental research to advance human knowledge of life. Furthermore, applied biological research often aids the development of solutions to problems in areas such as human health and the natural environment. Biological scientists mostly work in government, university, and private industry laboratories.
Biologists who work in basic research formulate theories and devise experiments to advance human knowledge on life including topics such as evolution, biochemistry, molecular biology, neuroscience and cell biology.
Biological scientists who work in applied research use instead the accomplishments gained by basic research to further knowledge in particular fields or applications. For example, this applied research may be used to develop new pharmaceutical drugs, treatments and medical diagnostic tests. Biological scientists conducting applied research and product development in private industry may be required to describe their research plans or results to non-scientists who are in a position to veto or approve their ideas. These scientists must consider the business effects of their work.
While theoretical biologists usually work in "dry" labs, formulating mathematical models and running computer simulations, some experimental biologists conduct laboratory experiments involving animals, plants, microorganisms or biomolecules. However, a small part of experimental biological research also occurs outside the laboratory and may involve natural observation rather than experimentation. For example, a botanist may investigate the plant species present in a particular environment, while an ecologist might study how a forest area recovers after a fire.
Swift advances in knowledge of genetics and organic molecules spurred growth in the field of biotechnology, transforming the industries in which biological scientists work. Biological scientists can now manipulate the genetic material of animals and plants, attempting to make organisms (including humans) more productive or resistant to disease. Basic and applied research on biotechnological processes, such as recombining DNA, has led to the production of important substances, including human insulin and growth hormone. Many other substances not previously available in large quantities are now produced by biotechnological means. Some of these substances are useful in treating diseases.
Those working on various genome (chromosomes with their associated genes) projects isolate genes and determine their function. This work continues to lead to the discovery of genes associated with specific diseases and inherited health risks, such as sickle cell anemia. Advances in biotechnology have created research opportunities in almost all areas of biology, with commercial applications in areas such as medicine, agriculture, and environmental remediation.
Most biological scientists specialize in the study of a certain type of organism or in a specific activity, although recent advances have blurred some traditional classifications.[why?]
Biological scientists are not usually exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination. Many biological scientists, such as botanists, ecologists, and zoologists, conduct field studies that involve strenuous physical activity and primitive living conditions. Biological scientists in the field may work in warm or cold climates, in all kinds of weather.
Marine biologists encounter a variety of working conditions. Some work in laboratories; others work on research ships, and those who work underwater must practice safe diving while working around sharp coral reefs and hazardous marine life. Although some marine biologists obtain their specimens from the sea, many still spend a good deal of their time in laboratories and offices, conducting tests, running experiments, recording results, and compiling data.
Many biological scientists depend on grant money to fund their research. They may be under pressure to meet deadlines and to conform to rigid grant-writing specifications when preparing proposals to seek new or extended funding.
Biological scientists typically work regular hours. While the 40-hour workweek is common, longer hours are not uncommon. Researchers may be required to work odd hours in laboratories or other locations (especially while in the field), depending on the nature of their research.
The highest honor awarded to biologists is the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded since 1901, by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Another significant award is the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences; established in 1980.