View Full Version : Biology vs Medical Research

07-07-2016, 09:23 PM
My world is another planet that has the equivalent of 1930s or 1940s technology, plus a few unique bits of tech, sort of dieselpunk. The MC is attending university at first, and she excels at science, particularly biology. Eventually, she gets her doctorate in biology and then joins the military (during a world war) and is put to work as a medical researcher, mainly making bioweapons out of lethal viruses. In her spare time, she prefers to work on creating vaccines, antibiotics, anesthesias, painkillers, and other means of helping injured or sick soldiers.

Now, according to the research I did before starting the novel, this is all perfectly feasible. However, one of my beta-readers just called me on it, saying that biology isn't the same as medical science, so if my MC specializes in biology, she wouldn't be working with drugs and viruses. But when I looked up the different branches of science, it seemed like medical research fell under the heading of "biology," so now I'm confused.

I want the MC to keep doing what she's doing, I just need to make sure I call it the right thing. Things aren't very advanced on her world (they've only just invented antibiotics), and I suppose it's possible they might categorize things differently than we do. But the male MC is from a highly advanced civilization (he crashed on her planet several years before), so if things are backwards on this world, he needs to comment on it, so the reader doesn't get confused.

Any thoughts or suggestions?

King Neptune
07-07-2016, 09:40 PM
I agree with you, and I have known people who studied biology before going to medical school. This list of branches of biology has virology listed: http://www.macroevolution.net/branches-of-biology-2.html
If I were making bio-weapons, then I would want to find skilled microbiologists and virologists. When you examine the matter carefully it becomes clear that medicine is just another branch of biology.

07-07-2016, 10:00 PM
Uh, medicine and biology are strongly related. I teach introductory biology and most of my students say they are going into medicine (poor dears hadn't experienced biochem yet). My school also has a an entire program specifically for medical research, and that's a master's of art degree. You really just need a degree that has a strong background in biology and chemistry. A researcher/lab tech does not necessarily need a doctorate of medicine (it's your world rules, after all), though some do, especially if they want to head up their own lab.

Maybe she could get her degree in a more specific branch of biology? Like microbiology? The early developers of bioweapons were microbiologists, pathologists, or bacteriologists. Biochemistry or bioengineering could also be options.

07-07-2016, 10:06 PM
An undergrad biology student has to/can take physiology, genetics, cell and molecular biology, hematology, virology, etc... but also classes that include plant biology, ecology, etc. (perhaps that's what's throwing your beta reader off). But by the time your character has her doctorate, she will have some areas of specialty which could be very conceivably be research on specific human diseases and cures.

Then there's Human Biology, which my university recently renamed to "Biology: Biomedical Sciences Option"-- not much different that the Biology major, but with more emphasis on the human species rather than species in general, or ecology. It seems that's the degree you want if you're going to be doing research in human medicine and disease, but still-- it's presented as a Biology degree, with some extra specific requirements.

07-07-2016, 10:32 PM
There is a strong link between biology and biomedical research. So long as she is not actually treating anyone or referring to what she does as medicine I don't see a problem. What she does not have is any basis for doing anything therapeutic for actual patients and she cannot call herself a medical practitioner or anything like that.

07-07-2016, 11:07 PM
Okay, so I was on the right track. Good to know! She definitely doesn't want to be a physician. She's not interested in treating patients, just working with research medicine, creating drugs, vaccines, and the like. I mentioned other types of science classes she's taken, like chemistry, but I'll add a few more advanced ones, just to round things out.

07-08-2016, 12:07 AM
It's not Earth. Your planet can divide things up differently. Also in Wartime things may run differently and people can cross disiplines if they have a knack for it.

If this were modern America she'd probably have gone the route of MD/PhD

07-09-2016, 04:30 AM
If her PhD was in virus biology (definitely a thing people without MDs do all the time) then it seems totally reasonable for her to continue doing work in that field. Ditto with vaccine creation. The other stuff (antibiotics, anesthesias, painkillers) seems like a bit of a stretch, not because a biologist wouldn't work on developing those things necessarily, but because it's far removed enough from her primary field (virology) that I don't know where her expertise is coming from. It would also be not out of the realm of possibility for her to discover a compound in a virus with antibiotic (ie, antibacterial) properties--I could imagine a scenario where a virus had evolved something like that.

It's also worth considering how she is testing these things she is discovering on the side (as well as the viruses she is engineering for the military). Are they injecting them into mice? Chickens? (I have no idea what kind of animal models of disease would be used at that time). If so, are they going to have the animals to spare, during wartime, for her side projects? Immortal cell culture (in a dish) wasn't developed in our world until the 50s. But, the driving force behind that development was to find a vaccine for polio, so if you are positing a more advanced virology in this world, then maybe they figured out cell culture earlier. If you want a reading recommendation, Rebecca Skloot's book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the creation of the first immortal cell line and it is excellent.

07-09-2016, 05:58 PM
She isn't specializing in virus biology at university, that's something the military pulls her into after she graduates with her doctorate. She prefers helping people, so she's more interested in vaccines, antibiotics, and the like, but the military wants "practical" applications for her work, so they set her to creating bioweapons out of viruses. She's very intelligent, quick to learn, and constantly reading science textbooks, so I don't see a problem with her dabbling in related fields of science. The only thing is, the university isn't super advanced, so I don't know if they'd even offer a degree in virus biology, or whichever field vaccines and medicines would be in. She might have to get her doctorate in just plain biology or perhaps "medical biology" (is that a thing?) and then specialize on her own.

As far as testing, she uses mice and rats. She has a bunch that she keeps in her basement laboratory, plus a whole room full at the base where she works. The government is military oriented, so whatever the military wants, they get, even in wartime.

I'll look up about immortal cell cultures. That's something I've never heard of, so I'll definitely research it to see if it'll work with this story. (Of course, 75% of the elements in this story are things I'm unfamiliar with. I swear, it's taking on a life of its own, going in directions I never imagined!)

07-09-2016, 06:25 PM
I concur with what's been said. A virologist would have a degree in microbiology, and one researching vaccines would have a heavy dose of immunology education. More than a few physicians go into research fields after they graduate and lots of biologists do medical research without medical degrees. One's degree is the stepping off point, specializing follows. My master's is in family practice (nurse practitioner) but I've been around the block in specialties from ICU to public health before finally settling in occupational infectious disease.

07-09-2016, 06:37 PM
Science has such a wide breadth of knowledge these days that a lot of degrees are combinations offered as a single degree. The university I went to now has 4 separate astronomy departments with one being a whole specialty in astrobiology. And computer technology now offers a degree in 'Computational Biology & Medicine' because computer programing has an integral role medical research. Computer programers were needed to write special programs for investigating things like the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome. You could give your character what used to be called a double major.

07-12-2016, 05:02 AM
If you're putting this back in the 30's and 40's it would be a good idea to look up some of the terminology in use at that time. Having your MC study Bacteriology makes sense rather than talking about Genomics or one of the modern disciplines that arose out of the DNA research that was happening after that period. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA#History_of_DNA_research

Info about bacteriology: http://www.asm.org/index.php/component/content/article/71-membership/archives/833-symposia-local-history-bacteriology

For her degree, a masters in bacteriology would be enough to have her working in a lab and able to perform research. She could be working on a doctorate but those were pretty rare for women in the 30's and 40's. Here's one woman that performed some notable research around that time: https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/alice-evans/

This is a whole different planet and culture so you don't have to stick to that timeline, but a doctorate is a highly specialized degree and tends to be narrowly focused on some highly specific aspect of your general field of study. If she had her master's degree in bacteriology then getting a doctorate in viral transmission methods in primates would make sense as a more narrow focus. Here are the doctoral dissertations from 1940. Woooo! Some really exciting bedtime reading there: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=doctoral+dissertation+bacteriology+1940&btnG=&hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C13&as_vis=1

07-12-2016, 05:44 AM
Biology is a broad field, one that encompasses medicine and biomedical sciences. There's a trend towards tighter specialization these days, but even now, there is a huge amount of overlap between disciplines, and different universities divvy up their life sciences departments in all kinds of ways. This was even more true back in the mid twentieth century (you said dieselpunk society).

So a person who studies, say, a microbe that causes (say) food poisoning, she could be in the medical school at one university, or she could be in the food sciences department at another, or in a biology department, or they could be in a microbiology (would have been called bacteriology back in the mid-20th century) department, if the school in question has a large life sciences program and splits various specialties instead of lumping them. Government and military labs will hire people with a variety of specialties too, and in the mid-twentieth century, I believe the average biologists were often broader in their focus than today.

What might be a bit less realistic is that this person is doing highly applied research in her "spare time," as developing vaccines and drugs requires a lot of funding and sophisticated lab facilities (even then it wasn't something you'd want to do in your kitchen), and most researchers don't have a lot of free time either. I assume she'd be using her bio-weapons lab facility and its resources, but even so, those controlling the purse strings might look askance if she's using their resources for non-approved projects. Since this is a government/military lab and not an academic one, I'm guessing they'd take a dimmer view of "unoffical" or "freelance" research being performed in their facility than an academic department at a university might.

Also, if the laws in your world are similar to what they are in the US, the patent for anything she develops via her employer's facilities or funding will belong to them. She wouldn't be free to take them to a drug or vaccine company on her own.

07-12-2016, 04:28 PM
Thanks for those links, I'll check them out!

On this world, women are a bit more equal to men than on our world in the comparative time frame. Her country is militaristic, but vaguely socialistic or communistic in nature. Everyone is given the same education, at least at first, along with an equal chance to pass or fail. Those who fail their exams are assigned as unskilled laborers on farms, sewage plants, or whatever. Those who pass are given additional education in the field of their choice. Those who are able to keep up are allowed to get doctorates, but most stop with a lesser degree. The female MC is pretty brilliant at science, but she has a learning disability (dyscalculia (numbers dyslexia)), so she needs extra mathematics tutoring in order to pass. She keeps this hidden from the state, because anyone with a learning disability is automatically disqualified for education--after all, why waste resources trying to teach someone who's unable to learn? A backwards view, to be sure, but it fits with the government I'm trying to portray.

As far as doing labwork at home, she isn't working on anything too advanced. I was thinking of maybe having her try to develop contraceptive pills in her spare time, along with some antibiotic research, but she wouldn't be working on bioweapons or anything dangerous. Her house has a fully equipped laboratory in the basement. It's actually a plot point, because the male MC needs to work on repairing his ship's AI systems, basically creating a microprocessor, which he doesn't dare work on at the university's labs, since it's seriously advanced technology that no one on this world has ever dreamed of yet. He can't risk them finding out. To help him, the female MC finds a house that once belonged to a scientist who built a lab in the basement. No one else wants to buy a house with a laboratory in the basement, so she's able to afford it. They move into the house together, as roommates. It's hard for her, because she's in love with this guy, but she knows that once he finishes repairing his ship, he'll leave her world and she'll never see him again. So it's a very unselfish act, buying this house for him.

I haven't thought much about patent laws or that sort of thing. I think I mentioned in one of the early chapters that anything developed at the university's lab automatically belongs to the university, or at least, they would get a portion of any profits made from it, so the MCs don't want to work on anything important there. (It's another reason to buy the house with the basement laboratory.) I'm quite sure the military would claim anything she developed at the research lab. So if she's going to come up with contraceptives or anything like that, it'll have to be on her own time, at home. The military might try to claim her work anyway, but she'd have a good defense, since she didn't develop them at work.