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What is Biomedical Science all about?
If you have a persistent interest in the human body and its inner workings - for example, if you find yourself asking questions like “how do our bodies heal wounds?”, or “what exactly causes Alzheimer’s disease?” time and time again – pursuing a degree in the field of Biomedical Science might be for you!
Biomedical science is a scientific discipline devoted to the study of the complex mechanisms that allow the human body to function, the ways in which these mechanisms can be disrupted in different diseases, and how this knowledge can be applied to improve human health. It is an extremely broad field of study which encompasses in-depth knowledge of human biology on many different levels. During the course of a typical Biomedical Science degree, the topics covered can range from biochemistry, where you learn about some of the smallest molecular processes that occur inside our bodies, to epidemiology, where you discover how diseases can affect entire communities.
The field of Biomedical Science is really important because it underpins so much of biological and medical research, and has contributed towards countless discoveries in the past couple of centuries which have given humans longer and healthier lives. For example, a diagnosis of HIV was once thought of as an immediate death sentence, but thanks to biomedical research, drugs have been developed that allow carriers to live normal lives.
Furthermore, our knowledge of the immune system and the underlying principles behind vaccination has not only allowed us to eradicate smallpox worldwide, but humanity has collectively been able to manufacture multiple vaccines against COVID-19 barely a year after it was first identified.
A combination of academic institutions, private companies, and governmental organisations specialising in biomedical research dedicate huge amounts of time and money in an attempt to answer all our health and disease-related questions and to come up with solutions to the current health challenges we face such as antimicrobial resistance and the obesity crisis. It’s such an exciting subject area to be part of since our ever-increasing understanding of the human body means that the field is constantly evolving and expanding; every question answered just seems to spark more!
There are plenty of bright and motivated individuals out there who are capable of rising to the challenge, but firstly the right background knowledge and training is needed, which is where a Biomedical Science degree comes in.
Typical topics covered in a Biomedical Science degree
One of the great things about a Biomedical Science degree is that over the typical three to four years spent studying at university, students get to cover a wide range of topics and are therefore provided with a solid understanding of how the human body works. As the degree goes on, students start to draw the links between all these different fields, which is a major step towards becoming a successful Biomedical Science graduate!
The vast majority of the topics outlined here are not necessarily exclusive to a Biomedical Science degree - there is often overlap with similar bioscience-oriented degrees, and many of these can even be studied as degree disciplines all on their own.
Furthermore, this list is not exhaustive since all academic institutions have their own unique ways of course teaching and delivery, but the list below gives a taster as to what you might cover in a typical Biomedical Science degree:
Biochemistry is a branch of science that bridges the gap between life sciences and physical sciences by delving into the chemical processes that occur inside living organisms. It involves applying knowledge of how molecules interact with each other in order to better understand the structure and function of various biological macromolecules, of which there are four main types: carbohydrates, nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids.
It is important for Biomedical Science students to learn about the basics of biochemistry and how it relates to human health and disease in order to understand some of the most complex biological systems in our bodies. Typical sub-topics covered in biochemistry include metabolism, how proteins are synthesised, and how enzymes work.
DNA is the smallest unit of all life and makes up every single gene that we have, so it stands to reason that biomedical science students should have a good grasp of the key concepts that relate to DNA.
Genetics is the study of how genes are inherited by individuals, how genes can vary between people, and how mutations in some genes can give rise to diseases such as cystic fibrosis.
Other topics include how DNA and cells replicate in mitosis and meiosis, human evolution up to today, and epigenetics, which is the study of hereditary phenotypic changes not caused by direct changes to our DNA sequences that can affect how genes are expressed.
Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system - the part of the body that coordinates actions and behaviour by receiving signals from different parts of the body and transmitting appropriate response signals. The nervous system is made up of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (all other components of the nervous system outside the brain and spinal cord).
In neuroscience, you’ll learn all about how sensory inputs from the outside world are transmitted across the nervous system and interpreted by the brain, the mechanisms behind learning and memory, and the science behind neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
In the subject of immunology, you’ll learn all about the immune system; the many different types of cells which are involved and what each of them does, how the immune system recognises potential threats and how the immune system is able to recognise a pathogen if it has already been encountered before.
You’ll also learn about what happens when the natural process of the immune system goes wrong, and the immune system turns on the rest of the body in autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
Furthermore, you’ll learn about how we can exploit the immune system to treat diseases in the fields of vaccination and organ transplantation.
It’s the science behind how drugs work!
There is a huge range of drugs out there all designed to treat different ailments in multiple ways, ranging from over the counter painkillers like paracetamol to powerful drugs frequently used in chemotherapy, and consequently, it is important to know exactly how these drugs interact with the human body.
You’ll learn about the main mechanisms for action for different drugs, the reasons why responses to drugs can vary between individuals, how new drugs are developed, and how adverse drug events can occur (as well as how to prevent them).
Anatomy and physiology
Anatomy and physiology are two sub-disciplines that are often taught hand-in-hand. Anatomy is the study of the body’s structures and where they all are in relation to one another, while physiology is defined as the study of the function of all these different parts of the body; key sub-topics can include the structure and function of the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system and the endocrine system.
Regardless of the specific system being studied, students learn about how a constant internal environment is maintained (homeostasis) and what happens when this optimal state is disrupted.
Although you might come across countless clickbait articles which claim to have found a universal “cure for cancer”, this idea in itself is a misnomer, since cancer is actually a whole collection of diseases that are extremely difficult to tackle - and when learning about cancer you’ll find out exactly why this is the case.
In a cancer biology module, you’ll learn all about the cellular processes involved in making sure cells are healthy and preventing cancer in the first place, how these cellular processes are disrupted when cancer takes hold in the human body and the ways in which we can fight various forms of cancer.
Regardless of whether they are separated into their own module or interspersed throughout several academic modules, the practical techniques and skills covered in a Biomedical Science degree are an invaluable part of the course.
To help reinforce what is taught in lectures and seminars, Biomedical Science students get to have experience in academic labs carrying out relevant experiments, ranging from amplification of DNA in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to observing how blood cells clump together in hemagglutination. There’s nothing quite like seeing science in action!
Although university practical work can be daunting at first, especially if you’ve had little to no previous experience in a lab environment, the wide variety of practical techniques you’ll be shown teaches you about how the academic knowledge you’ve gained can be applied in experimental settings.
The practical skills component of the course also helps to teach students about experimental design - there are lots of factors that need to be considered when designing an experiment, and an understanding of these factors will allow us to design experiments that yield reliable and accurate results (even if said results aren’t quite what we were expecting!).
Not every technique will be covered in scheduled university practicals (this is particularly true for more complex ones such as gene editing), but there can be other opportunities to gain further practical experience. Depending on what is offered by your university, this could be during a summer lab placement, a placement year in either an academic or industry setting, or as a part-time job as a lab assistant with your university. Additional experience is invaluable and will help you to stand out once you have finished your education and start to seek out employment.
Furthermore, towards the end of a Biomedical Science degree, you will have the chance to carry out your own special research project geared towards an area you might have been particularly interested in during your degree. With the assistance of a supervisor, you’ll have the chance to design your own experiments, generate data and analyse the results while writing it all up in a dissertation.
Skills you are likely to develop
On top of all the specific academic and practical knowledge gained during a Biomedical Science degree, there are lots of highly invaluable skills which students will have a chance to develop.
Critical analysis of information
One of the most important skills gained in a Biomedical Science degree is the ability to analyse and interpret information. During the course of your degree, you’ll have to make use of a wide variety of scientific content, including highly complex research papers. In order to make the most of this valuable information, it is important to be able to understand what is being said in the paper and what the results or data that is depicted can tell us.
This constant reading also teaches you how to critically analyse the information you come across - essentially, how to answer the question: “Can I believe what this source is saying?” There are lots of important cues to look for that tell you whether the results of an experiment or the contents of a dataset can really be trusted. As a scientist, it is important to maintain a healthy dose of scepticism and to be led by the direction of the evidence and not your own personal biases.
Another really important skill learned during a Biomedical Science degree is team-working. Science and research is a highly collaborative discipline by nature that requires working with lots of people, each with their own ideas. During a Biomedical Science degree, you’ll have a chance to develop these skills in group projects and learn how to collaborate effectively and how to reach a solution when there are differences in opinion.
Communication skills are paramount in any career regardless of the field but are particularly important in Biomedical Science-oriented careers because there is often lots of complex scientific information that needs to be broken down for individuals who may not necessarily have the same scientific background.
These communication skills are developed not only in group work as outlined above, but also in the form of academic essays where you have to give concise explanations of a topic, or in presentations where it’s important you get across all the key points within a certain time limit.
Time management is also a key skill which is taught - Biomedical Science can be an intensive degree with lots of long pieces of coursework in conjunction with examinations, and because of the sheer volume of taught content, it is vital to develop time management skills to keep on top of everything!
What can I do with a Biomedical Science degree?
The beauty of a Biomedical Science degree is that due to its broadness in scope and the range of skills you’re taught, there are a wide variety of career paths you can choose to follow after completing your degree.
If you particularly enjoyed the practical, lab-based work involved in completing a Biomedical Science degree, the following jobs may be of interest:
Scientific researcher: There are lots of opportunities to get involved in scientific research in both academic and industrial settings. As a researcher, you’ll spend time investigating the mechanisms involved in certain disease pathways in the hope of using this information to create new treatments. You may also carry out important experiments in the hope of further advancing our scientific knowledge.
Biomedical scientist: As a biomedical scientist working in a healthcare setting, you’ll carry out lots of lab-based work testing patient samples or tissue and analysing the results obtained in order to help clinicians diagnose and treat diseases.
Another route lots of Biomedical Science graduates decide to pursue is further study, which could take several different forms:
Vocational, healthcare-oriented degrees (e.g. medicine or nursing): Lots of Biomedical Science graduates choose to take on further study to become other kinds of healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses, and a Biomedical Science degree provides a great foundation on which to learn further about how the disease is treated.
Master’s: If there was a particular area you enjoyed during your undergraduate degree, doing a Master’s can give you the opportunity to study that area in greater detail and allow you to further enhance your scientific knowledge and soft skills.
PhD: Carrying out a PhD allows you to spend around three to four years (although this may be longer in some countries) working on your own scientific project that in some way contributes towards advancing human knowledge. This is the ultimate form of specialisation, and an increasing number of jobs relating to scientific research requires a PhD.
If you decide you’d prefer to be in an office-based role rather than being at the bench carrying out experiments, there are still plenty of science-oriented roles which are absolutely suitable for you!
This could include:
Science communication roles: In science communication, you’ll be responsible for creating straightforward, easy to understand scientific content for a variety of different audiences, which could range from medical professionals to the general public.
Clinical trial work: Clinical trials are highly regulated. Helping to run clinical trials can involve everything from helping to write up a specific protocol for how the trial will be run to making sure all the patient data is properly collected and stored
Governmental roles: In a government role, you could potentially use your biomedical science background to inform decisions about national health policy.
However, even if after completing a degree you decide a career in science or healthcare isn’t for you, the transferable skills you get from an academically rigorous STEM degree like Biomedical Science can translate well into a variety of roles, especially those that require problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
An important thing to consider, particularly if considering a lab-based career in a healthcare setting, is whether you choose to take a Biomedical Science degree that has specific accreditation, because this approval from a professional body via accreditation may be required for some jobs.
For example, in the United Kingdom, the term “biomedical scientist” is a protected title and in order for individuals to be able to register as a biomedical scientist with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), the regulatory body for a variety of healthcare professions, they must have completed a degree which is accredited by the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS).
Accredited degrees usually have a very specific set of content and modules to meet the requirements for accreditation, which can narrow the focus of the degree, while non-accredited degrees can be more flexible and usually have a wider range of modules available for study. Be sure to carefully consider whether an accredited or non-accredited degree is more suited to your interests and chosen career path.
How do I know if Biomedical Science is for me?
While you might not necessarily know exactly what career you want after finishing education, a Biomedical Science degree may be a good option for you if:
You had a particular interest in human biology at school, and still, find your interest piqued when you see articles about the newest scientific discoveries relating to health and disease
You know that you’re passionate about life science, but you can’t pick just one topic to study because so many areas of the field appeal to you!
You have an aptitude for problem-solving and thinking analytically and are interested in using your skills to contribute to our understanding of human health
You’re highly resilient in the face of adversity. Since learning how to handle failure is an essential quality needed to thrive in the scientific field, and even the path to success can be slow at times
In the future, you see yourself at the heart of biomedical research, or in any kind of life science role where you can use the knowledge obtained from your degree to make the world a better place
Since the specific content of Biomedical Science degrees can vary by university, it’s also important that you choose an appropriate course that suits your interests - important factors to consider are the degree of flexibility in modules offered, the degree of flexibility in the degree, the amount of practical work versus theoretical work, and how the degree is assessed.
While a Biomedical Science degree can definitely be intense, having the chance to study a subject that has so many real-world applications and contributes so much towards the improvement of human health has the potential to be extremely rewarding and worthwhile!