What Medical Scientists Do
Medical scientists plan and direct studies to investigate human diseases, and methods to prevent and treat them.
Medical scientists conduct research aimed at improving overall human health. They often use clinical trials and other investigative methods to reach their findings.
Medical scientists typically do the following:
- Conduct studies that investigate human diseases and methods of preventive care and treatment of diseases
- Develop instruments for medical applications
- Prepare and analyze medical samples and data to investigate causes and treatment of toxicity, pathogens, or chronic diseases
- Standardize drug potency, doses, and methods to allow for the mass manufacturing and distribution of drugs and medicinal compounds
- Work with health departments, industry personnel, and physicians to develop programs that improve health outcomes
- Apply for funding from government agencies and private funding sources, by writing research grant proposals
- Follow procedures to avoid contamination and maintain safety
Many medical scientists, especially in universities, work with little supervision, forming their own hypotheses and developing experiments, accordingly. They often lead teams of technicians, and sometimes students, who perform support tasks. For example, a medical scientist working in a university laboratory may have undergraduate assistants take measurements and make observations for the scientist’s research.
Medical scientists study the causes of diseases and other health problems. For example, a medical scientist who does cancer research might put together a combination of drugs that could slow the cancer’s progress. A clinical trial may be done to test the drugs. A medical scientist may work with licensed physicians, to test the new combination on patients who are willing to participate in the study.
In a clinical trial, patients agree to help determine if a particular drug, or combination of drugs, or other medical intervention works. Without knowing which group they are in, patients in a drug-related clinical trial either receive the trial drug or they receive a placebo, a pill or injection that looks like the trial drug but does not actually contain the drug.
Medical scientists analyze the data from all the patients in the clinical trial, to see how the trial drug performed. They compare the results to the control group that took the placebo and analyze the attributes of the participants. Publishing the findings is a very important final step in the process.
Medical scientists do research both to develop new treatments and to try to prevent health problems. For example, they may study the link between smoking and lung cancer or between diet and diabetes.
Medical scientists who work in private industry usually have to research the topics that benefit the company the most, rather than investigate their own interests. Although they may not have the pressure of writing grant proposals to get money for their research, they may have to explain their research plans to nonscientist managers or executives.
Medical scientists usually specialize in an area of research. The following are examples of types of medical scientists:
Cancer researchers research ways to prevent and cure cancers. They may specialize in one or more types of cancer.
Clinical and medical informaticians develop new ways to use large data sets. They look for explanations of health outcomes through the statistical analysis of existing data.
Clinical pharmacologists research, develop, and test existing and new drugs. They investigate the full effects drugs have on human health. Their interests may range from understanding specific molecules to the effects drugs have on large populations.
Gerontologists study the changes that people go through as they get older. Medical scientists who specialize in this field seek to understand the biology of aging and investigate ways to improve the quality of our later years.
Immunochemists investigate the reactions and effects various chemicals and drugs have on the human immune system.
Neuroscientists study the brain and nervous system.
Pharmacologists develop and research the effects of medicines.
Research histologists have a specific skill set that is used to research human tissue. They study how tissue grows, heals, and dies, and may investigate grafting techniques that can help people who have experienced serious injury.
Serologists research the serums, such as blood and saliva, found in the human body. Applied serologists often work in forensic science. For more information on forensic science, see the profile on forensic science technicians.
Toxicologists research the harmful effects of drugs, household chemicals, and other potentially poisonous substances. They may ensure the safety of drugs by investigating safe dosage limits.