Biological Technician

As a biological technician, you work closely with a team of supervising biologists to conduct tests, record observations, and research information in relation to the environment. You work in concert with biologists and are often responsible for carrying out detailed experiments to support research. You set up, operate, and maintain laboratory equipment, monitor experiments while recording the results. In addition, biological technicians develop and adapt laboratory procedures and devise solutions under the direction of biologists.

At a Glance

Imagine you have just come from an intense meeting with a stack of notes to serve as a testament to the seriousness of the discussion. You are a biological technician/technologist and your team has just been assigned to investigate an environmental issue concerning the local river. Two days ago, a routine sample of river water turned up a foreign substance that had never been seen before. You will play a crucial role in the upcoming days as your team races to identify the unknown compound and determine where it is coming from and how it is affecting the river ecosystem.

As a biological technician/technologist, you work closely with a team of supervising biologists to conduct tests, record observations, and research information. With this latest assignment, your team will grow to include chemists, ecotoxicologists, and hydrologists. First, the chemistry lab will isolate and identify the compound using chromatography. Once this has been done, you can begin to study the compound's potential effects on the ecosystem. You use a large aquarium in your lab that has been built to mimic the river with its native flora and fauna. You begin dosing the aquarium with the compound, carefully noting the effects. You record how the plants respond by measuring their respiration and carefully watch the fish in the tank to see if the compound affects their behaviour or their feeding rate.

In a few days, you will remove some of these fish from the tank so their organs and excrement can be examined to see how the compound is taken up in their bodies. All information from your lab analyses is recorded and presented to the investigating team of scientists as you work together to understand the impact of this new compound.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a biological technician:

  • Record and analyze experimental data for evaluation by research personnel.
  • Assist and conduct research, including collecting information and samples such as water and soil.
  • Prepare chemical reagents and media.
  • Conduct standardized biological, microbiological, and biochemical tests and laboratory analyses.
  • Monitor and observe experiments.
  • Ensure compliance with applicable regulations, for example environmental, occupational health and safety, and animal-care regulations.
  • Write reports and summaries of findings.
  • Set up, adjust, calibrate, clean, maintain, and troubleshoot laboratory and field equipment.
  • Order equipment and supplies, including researching new equipment and contacting vendors for detailed specifications, pricing, and on-site demonstrations.
  • Work with vendors to design custom equipment.
  • Liaise with the public, for example answering questions and conducting facility tours.

Work Environment

Biological technicians work in a variety of locations including but not limited to:

In the lab:

  • Conducting biological, microbiological, and biochemical tests
  • Setting up and maintaining laboratory equipment
  • Processing and preparing samples and specimens

In the field:

  • Coordinating and monitoring assessment and research projects
  • Collecting data and samples, taking measurements, and observing animal behaviour
  • Checking traps or nets for animals
  • Making presentations to partners and client groups

In the office:

  • Analyzing data and preparing reports
  • Presenting results to supervisors and other team members
  • Preparing estimates, including costs, manpower, and timelines
  • Applying for necessary permits, for example, import permits
  • Inventory control and maintenance

Where to Work

There are a number of places biological technicians/technologists can find employment. They include:

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges and universities
  • Environmental consulting firms
  • Self-employed consultant
  • Industry firms, for example, agriculture, pharmaceutical, and oil and gas firms

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as a biological technician/technologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Computer Science

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a biological technician/technologist is a technical diploma. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a biological technician/technologist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Biology
  • Environmental Technology
  • Biochemistry
  • Environmental Science
  • Environmental Studies

Although it is not necessary to become certified in order to work as a biological technician or technologist, some practitioners choose to apply for Professional Biologist status or become certified technicians or technologists. The requirements for these two designations vary among provinces.

Education and Skills

Melanie Towers

Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, Melanie Towers remembers that she and her brother were frequently encouraged to play outside. "I was always out playing in the dirt with snakes, mice, frogs, and lizards, whatever animal I happened to find. My parents felt it was important for me to explore the natural world.” Those years of exploration led to a love of biology in high school and, many years later, an advanced Biotechnology diploma from the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology.

Today Melanie is a Microbiology Research Technician with Droycon Bioconcepts Incorporated in Regina. The spring, summer, and early fall months are Melanie’s busiest period. This is when she spends much of her time in the lab conducting tests. Most of her testing pertains to the bacterial content of commercial and private water wells in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. As a microbiological technician, Melanie tests for biofouling in wells. "There are lots of microbes that grow in water wells, but when one type of microbe grows too quickly, it can plug up the well—that’s called biofouling.”

Melanie’s job is to test bacterial samples of the blocked well and determine which microbes are causing the problem. She uses a reactivity test to measure the water samples for a variety of bacteria, as well as the rate of activity. One of the pluses of Melanie’s work is the assignments she’s given: "Every morning I come into work and I never know what’s going to be thrown at me!” A good example of this is a project involving five water treatment plants in northern Saskatchewan. Melanie travelled to the remote plants many times to teach staff how to use a new procedure to test for coliform bacteria in their water. Until then, these plants were sending their water samples to the laboratory in Saskatoon, and it could take up to two weeks to get the results back.

The lapse in time to get the samples to the lab can affect the samples’ microbial makeup and make for an inaccurate reading of the water’s bacterial content. In addition, the delay in getting results back to the community may be detrimental to the quality of the drinking water. "Our company’s motto is to bring the laboratory to the sample, not the other way around. We are teaching these communities to test for the bacteria on their own.” The quicker turnaround time means the plant can treat its water sooner if coliform bacteria are present.

It’s unique projects like this that help Melanie feel she is making a positive contribution to the environment. "Helping these people conduct their own test for coliform bacteria means they can attack a problem more quickly.” And in doing so, the community and the environment that come into contact with the water are protected. "It feels good to know I’ve had a hand in protecting the area’s natural environment.”

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