Expert advice

How to be a Cell Biologist: Guidelines from an IIT scientist

Suranjana Mukherjee
Suranjana Mukherjee
Posted on 15 Nov 2021
15:36 PM
The study of Cell Biology combines meticulous lab work and solid theoretical knowledge.

The study of Cell Biology combines meticulous lab work and solid theoretical knowledge. Shutterstock

A special paper on Cell Biology at the postgraduate level will be helpful for pursuing the subject in more detail in future
To get admission to integrated PG courses in Cell Biology and Molecular Biology, you need a BSc degree in Biological Sciences, Physics or Chemistry or a BTech in Biotechnology

Cell Biology is the study of the structure and function of cells. This branch of biology is a highly specialised subject. It looks into the general properties shared by all cells and also the unique, highly complex functions specific to specialised cells. Careers in Cell Biology will offer you deep insights into the inner workings of all living things.

What does it take to be a cell biologist


The study of Cell Biology involves extremely thorough and careful work in a lab setting as well as solid theoretical knowledge. The skills needed in this field are:

  • Interdisciplinary approach
  • Observation power
  • Ability to plan
  • Being flexible and open to experimenting
  • Deductive reasoning
  • Analytical thinking

What you’ll do in the lab:

As a cell biologist, you’ll spend a lot of time in the lab, which can be fun! But you need to be careful and meticulous as a little mistake or overlooking the tiniest detail may alter the results of an experiment. At the end of any experiment, your data should be reproducible.

The duration of lab experiments varies considerably — it could only be a couple of hours or a full week. For long experiments, you need not work continuously for days but have to do some experimental work every day for a whole week. That’s why you need to plan in advance before doing such experiments. Flexibility and having contingency plans in place are two essential precautionary measures before conducting experiments.

The route to Cell Biology

After finishing your Class XII board exams with science subjects, you need a BSc degree in Physics, Chemistry, any of the Biological Sciences or Biotechnology. Next, you should get an MSc degree in Biotechnology or Biological Sciences, Physics or Chemistry. You can also go for the MBBS course from medical school. It would be helpful if you take a special paper on Cell Biology at the postgraduate level. However, the real journey begins at the Phd level.

Integrated PG courses in Cell and Molecular Biology

Integrated MSc courses in Cell and Molecular Biology offer theoretical knowledge and some practical aspects such as the skills and techniques used in this field. Here are some of the institutes that offer PG courses where Cell Biology is taught:

  • Dr Vikram Sarabhai Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, Maharaja Sayajirao (MS) University, Baroda, offers a five-year integrated MSc-PhD programme in Cell and Molecular Biology.
  • MS Ramaiah University of Applied Sciences, Bengaluru, offers a two-year MSc course in Molecular and Cellular Biology.
  • IIT Kharagpur offers an integrated MSc-PhD course in Chemical and Molecular Biology. Some parts of Cell Biology are taught here.

Apart from these institutes, you can study Cell Biology as part of different postgraduate courses at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, Indian Institutes of Scientific Research and Education (IISER), the National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS) Pune, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) Hyderabad and IITs.

Eligibility criteria: To get admission to any of these courses, you must have a BSc in Botany, Zoology, Physiology, Physics or Chemistry or a BTech in Biotechnology. You may also have to clear exams like GATE and JAM to get admission to institutes offering such courses.

Research opportunities in Cell Biology

You can carry out Cell Biology research at IISc Bangalore, NCCS Pune and CCMB Hyderabad. The Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine under the National Centre of Biological Sciences (NCBS-inSTEM) is one of the top institutes in India that has state-of-the-art facilities for this type of research.

Other than these, Cell Biology-related work is also going on in the labs of some faculty members of IISER, IITs, Bose Institute Kolkata, Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics Kolkata and Calcutta University.

Study abroad

Top universities and medical schools abroad offer courses and research opportunities related to Cell Biology. Here are some of the top global institutes where you can work in this field:

  • University of California, Berkeley, US
  • Harvard University, US
  • Cambridge University, UK
  • University College London, UK
  • University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  • University of Paris, France
  • Seoul National University, South Korea
  • Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, South Korea
  • National University of Singapore, Singapore
  • University of Tokyo, Japan

Application areas of Cell Biology

The multidisciplinary nature of Cell Biology has made its application in diverse areas. Some of these areas are:

  • Drug development
  • Human fertility
  • Biotechnology
  • Regenerative medicine
  • Diagnostics
  • Application science

Switching from academia to industry

Many cell biologists trade their lab coats for a career in companies. The variety of skills at their disposal make them well suited for careers in biotechnology, biomedical and pharmaceutical companies.

Cell Biology experts are generally put in charge of a team to teach other researchers cell-based techniques like how to maintain cells in the lab, how to do cell culture and how to grow cells. Planning experiments and performing cell-based assays are part of a cell biologist’s job profile in both industry and academia.

Job roles for cell biologists

  • Drug development: Cell and molecular biologists work in the R&D wing of pharmaceutical and biotech companies. When developing a drug, scientists hit upon some lead candidate molecules that need to be tested before formal release. The toxicity of these molecules is tested on cells and on animals. If all goes well, only then are they deemed fit to be used for clinical trials for humans. All the vaccines developed for COVID-19 have been developed this way.
  • Cellular agriculture: This sector focuses on the production of animal products by combining the fundamentals of Biotechnology, Molecular Biology, Tissue Engineering and Synthetic Biology. Cell biologists grow animal products in labs through cell culture. This is the future of agriculture where animal products would be made from cells without keeping livestock.
  • Genetically modified crop designing: This involves inserting DNA into the genome of an organism. In this specific field, cell biologists transfer new DNA into plant cells to produce a genetically modified plant. The seeds produced by this plant will also have the new DNA. These plants show resistance to certain pests, diseases, environmental concerns and chemical treatments.
  • Plant cell biology: This field is relevant to the understanding of how to enhance biomass production and yield in major crops. Big agri-tech firms and environmental think-tanks hire cell biologists to analyse the global pattern of crops and to critically examine the planet’s health by understanding processes related to plant cells.
  • Medical writing job: In this field, cell biologists use their knowledge of theory and practice to present information to the target audience. They usually work on different types of regulatory and research-related documents, disease or drug-related educational and promotional literature, and content for healthcare and pharmaceutical companies.
  • Freelance work: Some cell biologists do freelance work in food designing and provide advice to medical professionals on molecular-testing services.

(Dr Suranjana Mukherjee is DST Woman Scientist, School of Medical Science and Technology, IIT Kharagpur)

Last updated on 15 Nov 2021
17:04 PM
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