The 'Where' Factor, Part V

Jobs in the northwest: Just a Sampling Graphic: Cathleen Heard Editor's Note: This is the last installment of our five-part series on geographic issues that affect job hunting for life scientists. We will cover the Northwest and Alaska. Our boundaries may not be a true geographer's boundaries, but for our purposes, this area includes Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. The Northwest is characterized by a few big cities in a sea of sparsely populated countryside, contrasting

Jul 10, 2000
Karen Young Kreeger

Jobs in the northwest: Just a Sampling

Graphic: Cathleen Heard
Editor's Note: This is the last installment of our five-part series on geographic issues that affect job hunting for life scientists. We will cover the Northwest and Alaska. Our boundaries may not be a true geographer's boundaries, but for our purposes, this area includes Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

The Northwest is characterized by a few big cities in a sea of sparsely populated countryside, contrasting with the sprawl of the East Coast. As in other regions of the United States, the lay of the land affects opportunities in the life sciences. Despite the relative scarcity of bioscience hot spots compared to California to the south for instance, all of the states covered in this installment boast incredible outdoor recreational spots, notwithstanding the rain of the Pacific Northwest and long, dark winters of Alaska.

Among the major cities of the region, Seattle is a bioscience standout. "Seattle is a very entrepreneurial community," notes David Jensen, managing director of Search Masters International Inc., a recruiting firm in Sedona, Ariz. "The mix of companies is quite a bit smaller than in California, but it still is an enclave of many start-ups. They have venture capital available there no doubt due to Microsoft and other high-tech ventures. It's a good mix of small and a few large companies."

Mountain West

In the easternmost state, Wyoming, many people trained in the life sciences work as field biologists, mainly in wildlife biology, forest and range management, and fisheries biology, says William Gern, vice president of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. In the private sector, many biologists work for private environmental consulting firms concerned with water management and mining reclamation. "Wyoming is the number-one producer of coal in the nation," notes Gern. The state has stringent reclamation laws, and as the coal is mined from the land surface, plants and animals must be reintroduced and monitored after the extraction. Environmental consulting firms that specialize in this or the mining companies themselves hire many biologists.

Gern and others from the western states point out that many federal agencies such as the Park Service, Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service are responsible for large land masses, interstate waterways, and coastal resources in the West. These agencies also employ many biologists from various disciplines, although not many with a biomedical orientation.


American Association of Medical Colleges' list of accredited medical schools in the United States and Canada

Association of Independent Research Institutes


Biotechnology Industry Organization state affiliates

Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

National Institutes of Health rankings of support by institution fiscal year 1999

Oregon Bioscience Association

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Preparing Future Faculty

Salary Calculator

Search Masters International, with links to career forums

Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association

The University of Wyoming is the only four-year- and advanced-degree-granting institution in the state and the home of the region's research activities. Gern mentions that many of the school's graduates do go into biomedical fields, but that there are very few biotech opportunities in the state.

Next door in Utah, the core of the biotech industry is at the University of Utah, its medical school, and affiliated centers the Eccles Institute for Human Genetics and the Huntsman Cancer Institute, notes Brian Moss, president of the Utah Life Science Association in Salt Lake City. "Most industry comes from spin-offs from these institutions," he adds. About 120 companies fit broadly into the categories of biomedical, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals and employ 11,000, mostly in Salt Lake City.

Moss says that the area is strong in genetics research, which makes ample use of the Mormons' rich genealogical records. "Mormons are a stable population with a keen sense of family history, and being able to follow through the generational data is very useful," says Moss. For example, Myriad Genetics of breast-cancer-gene fame was spun off by Mark Skolnick, who was once with the University of Utah. Agricultural biotech is strong at Utah State University in Logan.

Moss describes the quality of life in Utah as "superb," with ready access to biking, hiking, boating, and skiing and a reasonable cost of living. He says Utah is sometimes seen as a conservative state because of the Mormon influence. "Some people may ask: Will my kid be accepted at school because he or she isn't a Mormon?" says Moss of some job seekers' concerns about moving to Salt Lake City. "Yes, it is a conservative town. It's an issue that comes up, but it isn't a detriment."

Pacific Northwest

Richard Heimsch, director of the Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station and interim associate vice president for research at the University of Idaho in Moscow, notes that the state has a very small population base, as does the rest of the West, and this influences what opportunities are available. "Agriculture is a very significant segment of the state's economy, which involves many different crops and food processing, especially potatoes and dairy products; these sectors do employ some biologists," he says.

The University of Idaho is the primary Ph.D.-granting and research institution. Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska all belong to a collaborative program with the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle for medical training. The UW School of Medicine holds a fixed number of spots for students from each of these states. Some students may complete their first one or two years of medical school classes in their home states.

Other Idaho life science students work in forestry research. Still others move to the larger West Coast cities, with many going to Portland, Ore., or Seattle for biomedical jobs, notes Heimsch. Finfish aquaculture is big in the Snake River area of Idaho, with the state providing about three-quarters of the frozen trout for the restaurant trade in the country. Many biologists are also trained to work in this area.

The University of Idaho is building a new life science building, which will be dedicated to agricultural biotech research and is expected to be completed by early March 2001. Its research strengths will be plant, animal, and environmental remediation, as well as fish aquaculture.

Ruth Scott, president of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association in Seattle, cites four main sources of life science research in her state: UW, with its medical school ranked third in National Institutes of Health funding; the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle; Washington State University in Pullman on the east side of the state, with strengths in plant and agricultural sciences; and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, with strengths in environmental molecular sciences.

"Half the biotech companies in the state have come out of UW and the Hutchinson Cancer Center, or have ongoing relationships with these two," says Scott. "These institutions are the reason why we're in the top five biotech corridors." In 1999 the biotechnology and medical technology industry in the state employed about 32,000 people in 140 companies. Immunex is the largest biotech firm in the region, employing about 1,000.

Scott says that in addition to the wonderful recreational activities close to Seattle, a draw for researchers is that there's a critical mass of brain power and entrepreneurial spirit that makes Seattle an exciting place to work. She remarks that Seattle's biotech boom can be traced back to the late 1980s, but that the exponential rise has occurred in the last five years, similar to San Diego's situation. "Our relatively low cost of living on the West Coast staying low remains to be seen," Scott adds. "It has skyrocketed recently, and I don't know what that will mean for bioscience development."

Biomedical science is a small industry in Oregon, says Larry Simonsmeier, consultant to the president of the Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland and the former executive director of the Oregon Bioscience Association. About 3,000 people are employed in bioscience--defined broadly--in the state, which is dominated by medical device and Internet/medical information companies. He says that the state produces about 1,500 life science undergraduates annually, and there are about 200 jobs at best for them in life science, plus some in fisheries and forestry.

The major research universities and life science employers are the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon State University in Corvallis, and OHSU, where the state's medical school is located. OHSU has about 9,000 staff members, with about 650 scientists. Oregon, like other states in the Northwest, has much federal land within its boundaries, so many biologists are employed by government agencies, which have offices all over the state. According to Simonsmeier, the state is trying to build a future base in bioscience by developing companies that combine biology and computers, such as bioinformatics firms. But says Simonsmeier, this initiative is still in its early days.


Most of the 400 undergraduates at the University of Alaska (UA), Fairbanks, who pursue the life sciences go on for graduate degrees, says Edward Murphy, an ecologist and associate dean of the College of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics at UA-Fairbanks. Life science companies that hire biologists in the state include environmental consulting firms that study the ecological impact of development, including oil drilling. Again, many biologists are employed by the federal agencies that oversee the land and ocean and the animals within their boundaries. "Quite a few people with master's [degrees] and Ph.D.s work for these agencies within the state," says Murphy.

In academia, positions in Alaska are few and far between. Alaska has three main universities--UA-Fairbanks, UA-Juneau, and UA-Anchorage. Murphy describes them as three semi-independent universities, with strengths in animal physiology, ecology, fisheries, and wildlife biology.

"We're certainly not here for the long, dark winters, but there are lots of opportunities for field biology .... There are lots of beautiful places to work here," concludes Murphy. S

Karen Young Kreeger ( is a contributing editor for The Scientist.