Reunited: 'my department is now a commercial enterprise'

May 21, 2004

Richard Hollingham studied applied and environmental biology at York University from 1988 to 1991

"The smell of York's biology department - a combination of microbial growth culture and industrial disinfectant - immediately takes me back to the summer of 1990. For several weeks I took my only brief foray into professional science: counting leeches under a laboratory microscope after spending the previous fortnight standing in a river kicking mud into a net. The aim was to assess the biological state of the water by analysing the types and number of invertebrates. It was difficult to muster enthusiasm for the project as it was blindingly obvious why the river was in such a poor state: there was a big pipe belching out brown water from the adjacent factory. I came to the conclusion that practical science wasn't for me - I had neither the discipline nor the patience. Journalism seemed far easier and more lucrative.

I was one of the first students to study applied biology, but at the time there wasn't much you could apply it to. There seemed to be few careers in biology other than research. Many graduates in my year became accountants, store managers or entered the media. Unbeknown to most of us, a quiet revolution was taking place.

Biology is now the hottest of the sciences - from cloning to genetically modified foods, gene therapy to stem cells. It's also one of the most commercial - the deciphering of the human genome is leading to new therapies; plant biology to new crops. It's a transformation reflected in York's biology department - although the main corridor still has its dingy lecture theatres, where there was once a car park, a new £26 million steel and glass building screams corporate dynamism. Its orange walls are lined with arty images of biological processes while its labs boast the latest high-tech instruments.

This is no longer just a place to foster academic excellence; it's also becoming a commercial enterprise. I met Rukmal Abeysekera, who runs the Bioincubator programme, helping scientists turn discoveries into businesses. Five have already been set up, and at least one is turning a profit. This new ethos permeates through to undergraduates. Second-year students receive training in "bio-enterprise" and are judged on their abilities to set up and run virtual companies. I got chatting to a few undergraduates in the common room - one is about to spend a year working in industry before completing his studies, another is considering entering biotechnology. Not only are they much more focused on their studies than I ever was, they're primarily considering careers in science. And unlike ten years ago, there are lots of jobs.

I can't help thinking biology is a lot more interesting than it was when I was an undergraduate. Students even get to grow their own GM crops - using gene guns to insert genetic material into cell tissue. Our grounding in genetics was interminably dull by comparison and involved learning about a monk and his peas.

I still don't think I'm cut out for life as a scientist. Nevertheless, if I was studying biology now, I hope I'd appreciate just how exciting the subject is. Perhaps of more importance to students burdened with debt, you can now make big money from it as well. Because, as I quickly learnt, you can't from journalism.

Richard Hollingham is the author of How to Clone the Perfect Blonde and a presenter for BBC World Service and Radio 4. He is speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of Science on June 10. Details: www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk

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