Alternative Careers for Science PhDs – Part IV: Biodefense
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Submitted by Meghan Mott on Wed, 2012-06-27 20:00

Applying your scientific expertise to preserve national security

Postdocs in the life sciences: the time to assess career goals is now. It’s easy to get comfortable in daily science, but we must be proactive in our career development! Competition for academic jobs is fierce in a market flooded with PhDs, and the odds are against us getting tenure-track positions. Thus, it’s imperative to explore the world outside academia, where opportunities exist that you may have never considered. Depending on your interests, careers in science writing, regulatory affairs, or science policy are viable options. If you want to work in a highly influential and multidisciplinary field aimed at protecting national security, a career in biodefense may be ideal.

The events of September 11th elevated biodefense to the forefront of national security. Biodefense or “biosecurity” refers to policies and actions taken to protect civilian and military populations against biological agents that may be intentionally released, or actions taken to prevent or respond to naturally occurring epidemics or emerging infectious diseases. The Department of Homeland Security protects citizens both within and outside our borders, and its goal is to prepare for, prevent, and respond to domestic emergencies. Other biosecurity agencies include the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Health and Human Services (CDC and FDA), and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The need for expertise in global health, public preparedness and response, medical countermeasure development, and biological research bolstered the job market in this field, and not just in government agencies.

Scientists in biodefense come from diverse backgrounds. Often specialties include immunology, biochemistry, toxicology, neurobiology, pathology, antibody resistance, bioinformatics, virology, molecular biology, microbiology, genomics, or bioengineering. Bench work in biodefense is fast-paced and dynamic. Research sponsors choose the lab projects to develop, which are typically in applied science. The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at the National Interagency Biodefense Campus is the principle biodefense research institution engaged in laboratory-based threat assessment and bioforensics. At the NBACC National Bioforensic Analysis Center, evidence from biocrime and terrorist attacks are analyzed to identify perpetrators and determine the origin and method of attack. The National Biological Threat Characterization Center conducts studies to understand current and future biological threats, assess vulnerabilities, and develop countermeasures such as detectors, drugs, vaccines, and decontamination technologies.

Centers for biodefense are distributed throughout various government agencies. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) employs scientists who are experts on an array of chemical, biological, and radiological threats. DTRA maintains programs in basic science research and development and an in-house think tank that aims to anticipate and mitigate future threats both here and abroad. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provides economic, development, and humanitarian assistance worldwide in support of US foreign policy. Its programs in global health prevent suffering and save lives with the Infectious Disease Initiative, which targets interventions in antimicrobial resistance, tuberculosis, malaria, and tropical diseases. The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) develops vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, and information to protect service members and civilians from biological threats. It is the only laboratory within the DoD capable of studying highly hazardous viruses that require maximum containment at biosafety level 4

Biodefense positions at NGOs are typically away from the bench and involve advisory or policy work. MITRE manages federally funded research and development centers including the National Security Engineering Center at the DoD. The Geneva Foundation is a non-profit organization that provides management and administrative expertise in areas of federally funded research and industry clinical trials to support and advance military medicine. The Gates Foundation Global Health Program in infectious diseases focuses on fighting and preventing enteric and diarrheal disease, HIV/AIDS, malaria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. The International Council for the Life Sciences is a non-profit organization that enhances global biological safety. It focuses on implementing an internationally recognized conduct of science that includes curricula for biosecurity and biosafety, instituting common methodology for assessing biological risks, and building networks of life scientists and policymakers.

Identifying an agency or organization you are interested in is the first step in your career transition. No matter the sector you choose, you must demonstrate key qualities beyond scientific expertise. Project management is critical in a changing field. Communication and leadership skills are essential, particularly away from the bench. Some positions are stationed abroad, and language proficiency may expand your options. The UPMC Center for Biosecurity sponsors the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative, which offers an annual fellowship for those are interested in entering the field, and is a great way to get started.

Protecting our armed forces and civilians from biological hazards is a national imperative that can be achieved with a career in biodefense.

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