February 1, 1998

Biotech researchers on track to future career advancement

The words biology and technology, when mentioned together, often conjure images of The Terminator — half man, half machine — menacingly lumbering ahead.

In today’s reality, biotechnology research is altruistic, creating drugs and cures to fight formerly incurable diseases like cancer.

Biotechnology researchers who do the “grunt work” associated with creating new drugs have widely varying salaries in Boulder County — from $20,000 to $120,000. Education appears to be the deciding factor in salary, with researchers who hold doctorates commanding the highest wages.

A five-year research associate at Ribozyme Pharmaceutical Inc. in Boulder said research assistants there make from $20,000 to $40,000, for example. David Ayers, who has a master’s degree in endocrinology, helps find drug applications for the lab’s signature, disease-fighting ribozymes, or RNA.

Most of Ayers’ research is based on previous work; very little is original. He said researchers often create practical applications from university work.

“A lot of it is trying to get something that’s out there already and apply it. We’ll also modify (information),” he said.

With a 40-plus hour work week, Ayers said job perks include working on cutting-edge science and having a flexible schedule. Researchers at Ribozyme are on a “tracked” career advancement system, with successful candidates advancing every two to three years.

Doug Looker, director of molecular biology at Somatogen Inc., has seen extreme financial peaks and valleys in his 10-year career at the biotech research company. Not surprisingly, the extremes come when there’s not enough research money in the highly competitive field, Looker said. He and his scientists develop a hemoglobin product to use as a temporary replacement for blood.

“The development of a recombinant DNA technology takes a long time, and it’s expensive. It often becomes a horse race: Do you have time enough to get it done before the money runs out?” Looker asked, theoretically.

Starting researchers at Somatogen earn about $25,000 annually; those with experience and a doctorate can earn from $100,000 to $120,000. Looker, with a doctorate in microbiology, oversees a staff of five.

At NeXstar Pharmaceuticals Inc., researchers also work more than 40 hours a week, says Judy Ruckman, a senior biotech researcher who works 60 hours some weeks.

“The application is being able to produce a drug that will hopefully help someone with some pathology,” Ruckman said of her job. NeXstar is probably best known for DaunXome, an anti-cancer agent.

In biology-related fields, woman appear to have greater equality in competing for jobs than they do in other “hard” sciences, like physics, Ruckman said. Females make up about half of the workers at the graduate level, she said.

At upper levels of advancement, however, it can get tougher to move up, possibly because of “lifestyle decisions” like having a child. At NeXstar roughly 10 percent of the scientists are women.

“At a meeting where there’s a controversial topic … I think there’s still bias against a woman who appears to be too aggressive,” Ruckman said.

The hardest thing for Ruckman, however, is knowing she can’t pursue unexpected results in her research. Instead, she has to constantly work toward the company’s goals.

“You have to give up your sense of ownership (of the work), or else go crazy. It’s a lesson I’m learning slowly,” Ruckman said.

The words biology and technology, when mentioned together, often conjure images of The Terminator — half man, half machine — menacingly lumbering ahead.

In today’s reality, biotechnology research is altruistic, creating drugs and cures to fight formerly incurable diseases like cancer.

Biotechnology researchers who do the “grunt work” associated with creating new drugs have widely varying salaries in Boulder County — from $20,000 to $120,000. Education appears to be the deciding factor in salary, with researchers who hold doctorates commanding the highest wages.

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