Physiology is not about discovering how fizzy things are! That would be fizz-iology! Physiologists are specialist biological scientists that conduct research and investigations into living organisms and their various functions.
The experts that work in this area can pursue both academic and applied science routes.
What does physiology involve?
Physiology is a fairly broad area of science. These guys can study literally any form of life, from single-celled amoebae and viruses, to humans, zebras and Giant Redwood trees. If aliens landed on earth tomorrow, tentacles flailing in the air and speaking absolute nonsense, physiologists would be the first people to have a shot at studying them.
Consequently, most physiologists specialise in a specific area, such as clinical physiology, viral physiology, exercise physiology, animal or plant physiology.
The main focus of these careers is on research. Physiologists investigate the biological systems and processes that allow humans, animals, plants and other organisms to function properly and perform effectively. Key areas of study include respiratory, muscular, reproductive and digestive systems.
Physiologists are employed by all kinds of private companies and government organisations, from pharmaceutical companies, the NHS, food manufacturers and the Ministry of Defence, to universities, scientific research agencies, professional sports organisations and animal sanctuaries.
What kinds of physiologists are there?
Clinical physiologists and viral physiologists work in hospitals, medical science laboratories or clinics and help with the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and other medical problems.
Understandably, animal physiologists conduct experiments and studies into the physical systems of animals. Plant physiologists, on the other hand, investigate the functional systems of plant life in order to help farmers and growers improve crop yields and enhance the growth and survival of different plant species.
If this is what you’re into, you should definitely check out the Zoological & Botanical Sciences and Horticulture & Gardening subsectors!
Exercise physiologists tend to work with professional sportspeople; investigating the effects of exercise and sporting activity on the human body. They analyse their training, how their bodies move, how their respiratory systems function, how their hearts beat and how they convert food into energy.
They then use these findings to provide advice on how athletes can alter their training, technique and diet to optimise their performance. They may also help injured sportspeople to get back to full-fitness.
A prime example of a sportsperson that has been helped by exercise physiology is the ex-Manchester United midfielder, Owen Hargreaves, who was injured for over two years. He spent time with an expert surgeon and exercise physiologist over in the United States.
Their role was to analyse his recurring injury and figure out how to prevent it in the future. We’re not sure whether they actually did a good job (he got injured again), but you get the idea!
To develop a career in any area of physiology, you will need to study a relevant scientific degree, such as physiology, biotechnology, medicine, biology pharmacology, botanical sciences, sports science, zoology, biomedical sciences or physiotherapy.
So, if you want to make geraniums grow ginormous and footballers fast and furious, and you want to get the first peak of the aliens when they finally get around to visiting, a career as a physiologist might be right up your street.
What are physiological sciences?
Many diseases can’t be diagnosed simply through patient consultations and physical examinations. If you’ve potentially got a problem with one of your organs, your hearing, your sight or your brain, you will most likely have to ‘go for tests’.
Some medical tests are carried out by clinical scientists in laboratories, such as blood tests and the analysis of fluid samples, tissues and chemicals. However, some tests are all about evaluating the performance and functionality of the body’s organs using state-of-the-art equipment and other technologies. This latter kind of test is the responsibility of physiological scientists and that’s what we’re here to talk about!
What do physiological scientists do?
Without the expert work of physiological scientists, doctors wouldn’t be able to diagnose physiological problems and select the best course of treatment. These guys play a vital role in diagnosing and planning the treatment of people with heart problems, gastroenterological maladies, hearing problems, respiratory complaints and neurological conditions.
If you choose to work in this area, you’re not going to be tucked away in a lab – you’ll be working on the frontline in hospitals or clinics. Consequently, you will have direct contact with patients on a daily basis. This is an immensely wide-ranging area of work and the people that work in the physiological sciences area are employed in many different niche roles.
You could become a gastrointestinal physiologist and conduct evaluations of patients’ digestive systems; you could pursue a career as a respiratory physiologist and carry out tests on people with breathing difficulties; or you could get involved with clinical perfusion, where you’ll be in charge of the machines that are essential for keeping people alive during major operations on the heart and lungs.
You could be working as an audiologist, where you’d be assessing people’s hearing and balance problems, and helping them to use hearing aids and other audiological solutions. Alternatively, you could develop a career as a neurophysiologist, where you’d be responsible for testing conditions that affect people’s brains, such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, narcolepsy and motor neurone disease.
What will my role be and how do I get in?
Understandably, your day-to-day responsibilities as a physiological scientist will vary depending on your area of specialism. However, generally, you will be spend the majority of your time using high-tech equipment and specialist techniques to gauge the performance and functionality of patients’ organs and bodily functions. You will then be analysing your findings and presenting your conclusions, recordings and results to medical professionals.
You will also be required to get involved with the treatment of conditions by playing a part in surgical procedures or helping to install therapeutic physiological devices, such as hearing aids.
You will constantly have direct contact with patients, some of whom will be incredibly ill. Therefore, you will need to have an excellent bedside manner, communication skills and the ability to reassure scared, nervous and vulnerable patients.
The majority of physiological scientists need to have a degree in clinical physiology. However, these courses can often be studied on a part-time basis whilst you are training on-the-job. You can study these courses straight after your A-levels if you have studied at least two science subjects. However, you could also do a science degree in a subject, such as biology, natural sciences or biomedical science, before applying to do a clinical physiology degree.
‘Going for tests’ is a very ominous necessity, but an effective clinical physiologist can alleviate these fears; you could be a sight for sore eyes, a hearing aide, a breath of fresh air…(cue canned laughter) All jokes aside, a career in physiological science is a crucial part in arguably the most important job of all – keeping people alive.