Microbiologists are scientists who study living things that cannot be seen with the naked eye, such as bacteria, fungi, protozoans, and viruses, as well as human and animal cells. They examine the effects these microorganisms and infectious agents have on people, animals, plants, and the environment. They are interested in learning about microorganisms that cause diseases, how microorganisms can be used to treat and prevent diseases, and ways microorganisms can be used in developing products. Microbiologists are a subspecialty of biological scientists.
Microbiologist Career History
Microbiology traces its beginnings back to the invention of the microscope. Father and son Dutch spectacle makers Hans and Zacharias Jansen are credited with inventing the first actual functioning compound microscope in the 1590s. Another early and important event occurred when Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek observed bacteria and protozoans in 1676. Leeuwenhoek ground lenses to make his own microscopes to view minuscule living things, and he recorded his research findings.
The germ theory of disease evolved in the late 1800s when Louis Pasteur and his contemporaries showed that germs cause diseases. This led to the development of microbiology. To help in diagnosing, treating, and preventing infectious disease, hospitals began using microbiologists to culture, or grow, disease-causing microorganisms from patients.
While microbiology is generally used to benefit humans, animals, plants, and the environment, there is another side to it: bioterrorism. Infectious microorganisms in the wrong hands can be used as weapons in biological warfare.
According to the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), about one-third of the Nobel prizes in physiology or medicine awarded in the 20th century went to microbiologists.
Microbiologist Job Description
Microbiologists examine microscopic organisms (microorganisms, microbes, or germs) such as algae, bacteria, fungi, molds, protozoans, viruses, and yeasts. They are interested in the form, structure, classification, and distribution of microorganisms, as well as their interactions and relationships with each other. Microbiologists study ways that microorganisms affect human, plant, and animal life and our environment, indoors and out. They search for ways to use microorganisms to make improvements in food and drugs, as well as to understand their involvement in the spread or control of disease and pollution. For example, antibiotics are produced using bacteria or fungi, and microbes can be used to break down waste. Microorganisms are used in the making of foods like cheese and tofu, in food preservation, and in meat tenderizing processes. Flavors, colors, and added vitamins are all made from microbes.
Microbiologists work independently or as part of a team in the field collecting samples and in laboratories examining these samples. They grow bacteria in small covered dishes called Petri dishes, and they check reactions of microorganisms when introduced to physical or chemical agents in test tubes. They examine microorganisms under microscopes and keep track of their data and conduct research on computers.
Sara Silverstone is a college professor and an environmental and industrial consultant. She works with clients who have problems regarding microbiology. After getting details about a particular problem from the client, she conducts research on the computer and in the library and gets samples from the air, the water, or surfaces in the environment. “Some of the environmental sampling I do takes place outdoors. I need outdoor background samples when I am sampling the air inside a building for mold, for example. Samples from wastewater treatment plants, lakes, and soil are taken outdoors.” She either sends these samples to a laboratory where they can be analyzed or she analyzes them in her own laboratory. After this analysis, she writes a report on what she has found and gives it to the client.
Microbiologists work in the agriculture, beverage, biotechnology, chemical, education, environmental, food, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries, among others. They work in private companies and hospitals conducting research or developing drugs, and they work in government agencies and laboratories. Some write microbiology-related articles or books for scientific publishers.
General microbiologists are concerned with a broad range of study including the structure, development, ecology, functions, and chemical changes of microorganisms.
Medical and clinical microbiologists have the goal of understanding, treating, and preventing diseases in humans. They explore microorganisms and infectious agents that cause various diseases, look for ways to more quickly diagnose diseases, and develop medicines to protect against diseases. Clinical microbiologists have helped prevent the spread of diseases like typhoid fever, influenza, measles, polio, whooping cough, and smallpox. Today they are trying to find cures and treatments for AIDS, cancer, cystic fibrosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. Veterinary microbiologists do the same for animals. It is the clinical microbiologist who analyzes biological agents in cases of suspected bioterrorism.
Using genetic engineering, agricultural microbiologists develop crops that resist the elements (e.g., frost, drought, and extreme heat) as well as diseases and pests. They also study how microorganisms affect soil and water. They try to find ways to use microorganisms to kill insects as an alternative to using unsafe pesticides. Food micro-biologists are concerned with making safer, tastier, and healthier food products and food that is less likely to spoil or become contaminated. Salmonella and Escherichia coli (E. coli) are two microorganisms, commonly found in food, than can cause illness.
Environmental microbiologists deal with environmental contamination, perhaps in waste sites, groundwater, or other outdoor locations. They examine oil spills, hazardous waste sites, or polluted air and try to find organisms that will successfully clean up the contamination. They work to keep wildlife, rodents, and insects from transmitting infectious agents.
Industrial microbiologists, or biotechnologists, apply the principles of biology and engineering to microorganisms to develop new products (drugs, alcoholic beverages, cosmetics, and foods), monitor the safety of existing products, and oversee manufacturing processes.
Marine microbiologists explore microorganisms that live in the world’s oceans.
Microbiologist Career Requirements
If you are thinking about a career in microbiology, be sure to get a well-rounded science background in high school. You should take biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and math classes. “My biology class helped me discover my fascination with the living world,” Sara Silverstone remembers. English classes will help you develop your oral and written communication skills, which will prepare you for writing papers and public speaking.
An undergraduate degree in microbiological sciences is recommended. If this degree is not offered, the American Society for Microbiology suggests that you major in the biological or life sciences or in chemistry and take any available microbiology courses, such as immunology, medical microbiology, microbial physiology, mycology, pathology, and virology. In addition to microbiology classes, you will have to take courses in chemistry (organic and physical), math (algebra, calculus, and statistics), biology (cell biology and genetics), and physics.
While you may find a job in microbiology after earning a bachelor’s degree, most positions in research, education, and industry require a master’s degree, a Ph.D., or an M.D., which means you should be prepared to spend six or more years in school beyond high school. According to Silverstone, “Earning a master’s requires doing research under the supervision of a mentor who provides training in their own specialty,” for example, bacteriology, genetics, immunology, microbial ecology, molecular biology, physiology, or virology.
While in a Ph.D. program, you can expect to spend a lot of your time working in a laboratory, where you will design and conduct experiments. Many graduate students also work as teaching assistants or lab supervisors. Other experience you can gain at this level includes writing grants, publishing papers, and making presentations at science conferences.
Certification or Licensing
Certification is available in several areas. Though it is usually not necessary, it may be requested for certain positions and/or by certain states. The American College of Microbiology watches over the ASM’s certification programs: the National Registry of Microbiologists (NRM), the American Board of Medical Microbiology (ABMM), and the American Board of Medical Laboratory Immunology (ABMLI). The NRM certifies microbiologists in clinical and nonclinical areas at three levels: registered microbiologist, conditional registrant, and specialist microbiologist. ABMM certification is required for laboratory directors with federal or state government agencies in the areas of microbiology, mycology, parasitology, and virology, and ABMLI certification in the area of immunology. The American Society for Clinical Pathology offers certification for microbiologists in the categories of specialist and technologist.
If you want to become a microbiologist, you should be inquisitive and enjoy learning, as the work involves exploring sometimes unusual or unknown microscopic life forms. Critical thinking and analytic skills are essential when observing the growth and characteristics of microorganisms so that you are able to properly evaluate problems and arrive at suitable solutions. Focus, concentration, and attention to detail are other necessary attributes. You will need to be accurate and precise in recording your research findings. Strong mathematical and computational ability will also help when it comes to recording and analyzing your data.
Since much research is conducted independently, you must be self-disciplined and enjoy working on your own. If you are more of a follower and rely on others for guidance and direction, you probably will not be able to move beyond doing very basic research. For those times when you work with a team of people or if you teach, you will need good communication skills. Clinical microbiologists have to work quickly and carefully in cases of suspected bioterrorism.
Exploring Microbiologist Career
To get an idea of what microbiology is all about, try some of the ASM’s assorted microbiology-related experiments at http://www.microbe.org. The ASM publishes journals dealing with different specialties in microbiology, such as Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Infection and Immunity, and Journal of Clinical Microbiology. By reading journals, you will learn about the field and keep up with developments.
Another way to learn about microbiology is to talk to a microbiologist. You can search for a mentor through the ASM Web site (http://www.asm.org). To gain experience working in a scientific setting, try to get a part-time job with a company whose business is related to science. Volunteer at a local hospital. The ASM suggests that you get involved in a science club or a science fair in your school or community.
Sara Silverstone offers another idea: “Many universities offer opportunities for high school summer laboratory experiences or mentorship opportunities. Even if your local university does not have a formal program for high school students, setting up an appointment to speak with the faculty in the microbiology department might allow you to design your own program.”
You can find federal government jobs with such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health). Jobs are also available in state departments of health and ecology.
Universities hire microbiologists to teach and to conduct research. Other employers include hospitals; medical laboratories; and biotechnology, drug and pharmaceutical, and food-processing companies. Biotechnology companies tend to be concentrated in some of the major metropolitan areas, such as Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
While you are in college, try to find a part-time job or internship doing research in a university laboratory or with a company that hires microbiologists. As a research assistant in a genetics laboratory in college, Sara Silver-stone says she “washed glassware, prepared chemical reagents, and took care of the plants in the greenhouse.”
Also while you are in college, consider joining the ASM so you can take advantage of the many members-only career opportunities offered. (For student membership, you must be majoring in microbiology or a related field and not yet have earned your doctorate.) ASM’s Microbe Magazine (http://www.asm.org/microbe) advertises job openings, as does Science magazine (http://www.sciencemag.org). During your graduate study you can attend the ASM Kadner Institute, formerly the Summer Institute in Preparation for Careers in Microbiology. Other events will give you plenty of chances to network with professionals in the field. Check the ASM Web site for more in-depth information.
Upon graduation, many microbiologists become university faculty members or researchers. With a Ph.D., you may be able to obtain a postdoctoral fellowship.
Microbiologists may begin as research assistants and move to supervisory positions. If properly credentialed, micro-biologists may direct laboratories. Microbiologists who become instructors may move into academic administrative positions. Other advancement opportunities exist in companies, where microbiologists may move into executive positions. Experienced microbiologists are put in charge of government programs. Some microbiologists choose to start their own independent consulting businesses.
Microbiologists had median annual earnings of $55,300 in 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries ranged from less than $33,590 to more than $102,350 annually. Average earnings of microbiologists employed in federal government positions were $80,798 in 2005.
In government, academic, and private industry positions, microbiologists receive the standard benefits, such as paid vacation and sick days, health and retirement plans, and tuition reimbursement.
Microbiologists working independently or as part of a team collect samples either indoors or outdoors, depending on where the subject (e.g., human, animal, plant, natural resource) is located. Microbiologists who collect samples outdoors will encounter varied weather and terrain. Analysis is generally carried out indoors in a sterile setting, usually a laboratory or an office. Because micro-biologists often deal with disease-causing microorganisms, they must take precautions to prevent spillage or direct contact. Sometimes microbiologists have to wear protective clothing and gloves.
Microbiologists working in a hospital setting may work day or night shifts as well as weekends, since hospital laboratories generally operate around the clock to analyze germs infecting patients and to keep infections from spreading in the hospital. Independent consulting work leads to a great deal of freedom in choosing hours, projects, and clients.
Microbiologist Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor (USDL) predicts that employment for biological and medical scientists will grow as fast as the average through 2014. Although federal government research and development expenditures have increased, the number of recent graduates in the biological sciences also continues to grow, limiting opportunities in this employment sector. The USDL predicts that opportunities for microbiologists with a bachelor’s or master’s degree will be better. Positions will be available in sales, marketing, and research management, as well as in science and engineering technology.
Given the world’s political climate following the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, and the heightened concern over bioterrorism, the field of clinical microbiology should grow and attract more students.
Areas that will also be in need of skilled microbiologists include anti-infectives, biotechnology, molecular diagnostics, mycology, and vaccines. Biofilm research is a relatively new and growing area of microbiology. This type of research concerns bacteria that band together and attach to a surface, where they grow.
As long as germs are present in our world, there should always be a need for microbiologists to detect and examine them.