Last Updated: Aug 1, 2011
The latest technologies and scientific discoveries often first appear in health and medicine. Looking for those jobs right on the edge? Here are some rapidly changing fields worth a second look.
College means hands-on learning, particularly in the health professions. As a college student, you’ll start tackling real-world problems, not just textbook exercises, and you’ll have opportunities to experience what doctors, nurses, and other health care workers do every day. Working in laboratories, helping patients, and interning at hospitals expose students to the challenges and joys of contributing to the world through health and medicine.
But what’s “cutting edge” in this already fast-paced field?
The common cold, chicken pox, herpes, rabies, Ebola, and HIV are all viruses, and these microscopic terrors are currently the most fascinating creatures in the medical world.
Not quite alive and not quite dead, viruses are perfectly adapted for getting into and out of living bodies in order to reproduce. But the stealthy nature of viruses also makes them ideal tools for transferring genetic material into human cells for therapy too! Researchers are currently investigating the effects of infecting people with “helping genes” and molecules rather than with deadly ones.
Medicine is primarily concerned with the diseases that viruses cause in humans, especially the emerging diseases that we have no experience fighting—and much of the work is being done in college and university laboratories. Environmentalists, botanists, zoologists, government officials, and epidemiologists work together to try to determine how viruses are transmitted. Doctors and other public health professionals then turn this knowledge into prevention strategies. Still, the threat of viruses in the future is real and gives this area of study a sense of urgency.
Genetics and molecular medicine
Three interdisciplinary fields make up molecular medicine: genetics, immunology, and pharmacology. Geneticists’ work has provided indications of what diseases we are susceptible to, as well as hints for their cures. Genetics has also expanded into new fields such as medical ethics and genetic counseling, among others.
The immune system can make a trillion antibodies (specific molecules) to fight disease. Immunology studies how this works, so that when the body is threatened, pharmacology can attempt to fight the disease with drugs.
Combining state-of-the-art chemistry, computer modeling, statistics, and physiology, pharmacology sifts through millions of potential drugs each year in order to find the few that are both safe and effective. The result is a $250 billion industry and extraordinary opportunities in a host of related fields.
Sports medicine and athletic science
Would you like to do more than play sports? Sports medicine (glimpse) is a general term that includes athletic trainers, physiologists, nurses, dietitians, physical and occupational therapists, optometrists, psychologists, and counselors. Sports medicine incorporates the latest technology, such as medical imaging (MRIs), with traditional regimens (eating and exercising for maximum health). Beyond being a trainer or therapist to superstars, sports medicine professionals are involved in the prevention, rehabilitation, and cure of injuries to non-athletes too.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), members can be found in hospitals, sports medicine clinics, on the sidelines of professional and amateur sporting events, and even backstage at ballets. Many clinical members are world-renowned for their research in the effects of exercise on cardiovascular health and chronic diseases.
Despite the investment of billions of dollars of research into the treatment and prevention of cancer over the past 25 years, cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. One out of four people dies of it. The last 10 years have seen an explosion of research findings about how cancer is caused, how it can be treated, and how it can be prevented. We have learned that many genes and molecules play critical roles in turning regular cells into cancerous ones.
Researchers have recognized that a tumor needs blood to grow, and some therapies have targeted the vessels that supply the blood. If they can find a reliable way to choke off these vessels, the tumor can be stopped in its tracks. While this treatment was seen as a silver bullet against cancer 10 years ago, clinical trials found it to be less promising, but still helpful alongside chemotherapy. We have much to learn.
Both cancer research and careers in oncology (cancer treatment and prevention) are expected to continue to grow in the next decade. Plus, a whole new field of genetic testing for cancer risk is about to open. The more we find out about cancer, the more questions it raises about how our bodies work.
What you can do now
Get passionate! Getting and staying informed about new and developing areas is not just a good career move—it will keep you motivated as you learn to be an expert in your field. Reading magazines such as Science & Medicine and Scientific American can keep you informed on current trends. For more in-depth reports, try the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Get skilled! Don’t limit yourself to a specialized field right from the beginning. The worlds of medicine and health care are constantly changing and recombining. Take lots of different types of courses: computer science, research methodology, government and public policy, etc. And keep an eye on other hot areas in health and medicine (Allied Heath Careers: Another Side of Health Care?): bionics, medical imaging, geriatrics, social medicine, psychoneuroimmunology, environmental medicine, and bioterrorism.
Get going! Look into internships, co-ops, summer research, and other hands-on learning opportunities at colleges near you. Maybe not your first year, but often by your second, you can be involved in a critical research enterprise or contribute to a hospital’s health care program. Student-faculty research is also common, even as an undergraduate. Visit colleges, meet with professors, talk with undergraduates about their experiences, and get a sense of what they are really doing and what they’re passionate about. It’ll get you excited, too!
Joseph Dumit is Director of Science and Technology Studies at University of California, Davis.