The Work of the Biologist

Biologists specialize in a particular area of biology. They study biological processes, living things that live in particular environments, or a specific kind of living thing. Cytology is the study of the cells of the living organism. Marine biology deals with living organisms that live in the ocean. Ornithology involves the study of birds.

Biologists need to use a variety of tools and methods for their work. The biologist, like other scientists, reaches conclusions as a result of observing and experimenting. One important biological technique is dissection—cutting into a specimen to study its internal structure. The biologist's most important tool is probably the microscope. It is used not only to study microorganisms but also to examine cross sections of tissue from larger organisms.

Other sciences have contributed a number of tools and techniques to biology. The biologist's most important tool is probably the microscope. It is used not only to study microorganisms but also to examine cross sections of tissue from larger organisms.X rays are used to photograph and analyze organisms and their internal structures. The development of vacuum tubes made possible electron and field ion microscopes, many times more powerful than optical microscopes. The scanning electron microscope can be used to greatly magnify cells or small organisms and produce three-dimensional images.

The use of radioactive isotopes enables biologists to identify specific compounds and to determine their activity within the organism. The radiation emitted can be detected either with a Geiger-Müller counter or by autoradiography (a photographic technique that uses special film to locate radioactive material in cells or tissue). High-speed centrifuges, called ultracentrifuges, are used to prepare materials for electron microscopy and to separate various cellular components.

Other research methods include spectroscopy and electrophoresis. All these methods, by using different factors (such as light or electrical charge), aid in identifying and separating organic compounds. Another method, achieving similar results, is chromatography. In chromatography, closely related organic compounds can be separated by allowing a solution of them to seep through an absorbing medium. As the solution passes through the medium the constituent compounds are gradually separated into a series of discrete zones.

To interpret the results of their observations and experiments, biologists must keep accurate records. The branch of mathematics called statistics is important in their work because it allows them to draw meaningful conclusions from a great mass of data. Computers are often used to organize data in such a way that meaningful interpretations can be made. The application of statistics to the study of biology is called biometry.

Like other fields of study, biology consists of a number of specialties, each dealing with certain limited parts of the subject. Many of these specialties overlap other specialties or other sciences, such as chemistry, physics, archeology, or agriculture. All these divisions are interrelated, and it is impossible to study one without considering some of the others.

Biology can be divided into several broad fields, including zoology, the study of animals; botany, the study of plants; and microbiology, the study of such living things as bacteria and protozoans, which are so small that they cannot be seen without the aid of a microscope. Each of these fields can be broken down into further specialties. For example, a zoologist may concentrate on the study of insects, a field called entomology; a botanist may specialize in the study of trees, a field called dendrology; or a microbiologist may concentrate on the study of bacteria, a field called bacteriology.

Other fields of biology are concerned with problems common to many forms of life. These fields include:

Economic Biology

This is the study of organisms that are useful to humans, or that affect human activities. The various phases of economic biology are often taught in agricultural colleges with emphasis on such practical matters as production and selling techniques. Horticulture is the study of all ornamental or food plants except field crops. The study of field crops—cotton, corn, wheat, etc—and of their relationship to the soil is called agronomy. Animal husbandry is the study of farm animals.


Ecology is the study of living things in relation to each other and in relation to their surroundings.


Genetics is the study of the physiological mechanisms by which living things pass traits from generation to generation. Biologists concerned with evolution study the development of complex living things from simpler forms of life. Paleontology is the general science of fossils. Paleobotany is the study of fossil plants; paleozoology is the study of fossil animals. Eugenics is concerned with improving the human race through heredity.

Molecular Biology

Molecular biology is the branch of biology that uses the techniques of biochemistry and biophysics in the study of the molecular structure of living organisms. Scientists in this field generally use simple organisms, such as bacteria, in their studies, but the principles they discover generally apply to all living things. Research has been concentrated on heredity, cell development, and evolution.


Morphology is the study of form, usually visible form, in living things. The branch called anatomy is the study of structures, chiefly internal.


Pathology is the study of diseases. It is both a biological and a medical subject.


Physiology is the study of the functions of living cells, tissues, organs, or systems.


Taxonomy is the classification of organisms into orderly groups according to their physical structure and other traits.

Some biologists concentrate on the use of certain tools or techniques in their study of living things. The radiobiologist, who studies the effects of radioactivity on living organisms, is such a specialist. Another is the naturalist, who "hunts" wild animals with a camera or tape recorder.

Some biologists are concerned with basic research, seeking to increase our knowledge of living things regardless of whether this knowledge has any immediate use. Others are engaged in applied research, trying to solve specific problems, such as finding the cure for a certain disease. Still others are concerned mainly with teaching or with applying biology to other fields, such as agriculture.

To become a professional biologist requires a college education and usually graduate study as well. A biologist can work in government organizations, research, and industry. Those with a bachelor's degree in biology can teach in schools. A graduate or higher degree enables you to work as a researcher. Those who love nature and wildlife can work in sanctuaries, national parks, and zoos. Certain phases of biology, however, can be fascinating and rewarding hobbies for amateurs, including children. These hobbies include birdwatching, the collecting of butterflies and other insects, and microscope study.