It is no small task to attempt to convey the essence of a complex profession in a newspaper column. To understand the profession and its future it is necessary to look first at its past.

It is no small task to attempt to convey the essence of a complex profession in a newspaper column. To understand the profession and its future it is necessary to look first at its past.

Biomedical science has come a long way. The biomedical scientists of today began life at the start of the 20th century as pathology laboratory assistants, long before Fleming discovered penicillin. These early pioneers worked alongside pathologists assisting in post mortems and culturing organisms in hospital bacteriology laboratories.

Later, the profession developed into qualified laboratory technicians working as support workers to their medical colleagues. In more recent years biomedical science developed as a science in its own right, with a role in disease detection, diagnosis and monitoring, and research; a vital part of modern healthcare. The Pathological and Bacteriological Laboratory Assistants' Association, formed in 1912 to represent those pathology assistants, evolved into the Institute of Biomedical Science, the leading professional body in the field today, with 16,000 members.

Science moved swiftly during the last century and so has biomedical science in order to meet new demands and challenges. The profession pioneered the use of highly complex automated equipment and sophisticated information technology. Apart from the main pathology disciplines of haematology, microbiology, clinical chemistry and cellular pathology, biomedical scientists have moved into the newer areas of cytogenetics and molecular biology. Biomedical scientists are not just confined to NHS hospital laboratories: they are also employed in the Armed Forces, the national blood service, the pharmaceutical industry and university departments, to name but a few.

As scientific knowledge and understanding have increased, so too has the knowledge base required for biomedical scientists. The profession not only needs to know about the different disciplines within biomedical science, but also human anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, immunology and the biology of a wide range of human diseases. Biomedical science graduates entering the profession possess this knowledge as a starting point and build on it throughout their careers with Masters degrees, professional qualifications and professional doctorates.

However, biomedical scientists live with a burden of invisibility. The public rarely sees them, or knows of them, and neither do many of their fellow healthcare professionals. Yet their role is vital. Biomedical scientists in the UK handle in the region of 150 million patient samples every year. That's almost three samples for each person every year. Every person currently alive will, at some time in their life, have benefited from the services of a biomedical scientist, although most will probably be unaware of that fact. The truth is that a hospital cannot function in its normal activities without the support of the laboratory service. Seventy per cent of all diagnoses are based on pathology results. Biomedical scientists are as necessary as doctors and nurses.

It is of concern, then, that science is no longer seen as an attractive option for students considering A-levels and their subsequent careers. This must have as much to do with the perception of what science is and what scientists are as anything else. A lack of identity is a significant factor, with people losing contact with science amid the plethora of complex sub-specialities. But society needs science. It drives every aspect of our lives, from our home and environment to health, wealth and wellbeing.

So what makes biomedical science such a fascinating and rewarding career? A look down a microscope offers lots of reasons: a whole new world opens up, where the chaotic architecture of tumours is revealed, the teeming bacteria that cause infections are visible, as are the millions of cells that carry oxygen in our blood and form the front line of our immune system.

The modernisation of the health service is creating new career opportunities and new roles for biomedical scientists. Senior members of the profession can achieve Chartered Scientist status, which is a worthy mark of excellence. Biomedical science had a colourful history, but without doubt it also has a bright and important future.

Edward Welsh is president of the Institute of Biomedical Science

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