Careers in Microbiology & Immunology, a Primer and Checklist
So you are considering a career in the field of microbiology and are curious as to what to expect. What do you expect at this moment? Likely you are thinking that microbiology is limited to medical studies or bioremediation. This is a common misconception of young students. Careers in microbiology are only limited by one's ability to imagine, as you can have a career in everything from medicine to water treatment to exobiology.
At this time, it is important for you to consider your options of which there are many.
- What type of work environment suits your personality and desires?
- Research and Development
- Teaching and Research
- Sales and Marketing
- Product Development
- Quality Control
- Policy and Regulation
- Small or large college
- Primarily Teaching
- Primarily Research
- Tenure Track versus Temporary
- Realize the pressure and commitments involved (i.e. Find out what your faculty actually do besides lecture!)
- Patent law and Intellectual property
At this point in time, you need to make several decisions regarding your life's goals. First, do you actually need to go to graduate school to reach your goals and how far do you need to go→M.S. or Ph.D.? Or is your Bachelor's degree sufficient for your personal goals? Each degree has its limitations and benefits having relevance to your employability at the end of your education. Second, do you want to do research or applications? Third, what aspect of microbiology do you find most interesting? The answers to these three questions will have a bearing on your choice of graduate program. To answer these questions, start asking questions!! Start with your professors, but don't end there. While at this meeting, ask professors from other institutions what they think about your goals and how to reach them. Remember that we have representatives from other areas of microbiology attending this meeting, please avail yourselves of this opportunity.
As you contemplate the questions you are going to ask, a number of concerns should be factored into your thoughts. These are listed below:
|Education required||Daily routines|
|Work experience required||Level of interpersonal interaction|
|Salary||General advice and information|
|Opportunity for advancement||Perceived advantages and disadvantages|
By no means consider this a complete listing of topics on which you might want to obtain information, but it is a place to start.
Fields in Microbiology
Now you should be asking the question, "What are the field choices in microbiology?"
|Medically related fields:||General and Applied Microbiology:|
|Medical Microbiology||Microbial Ecology|
|Epidemiology||Water Purification and Treatment|
|Molecular Pathogenesis||Microbial Physiology|
|Food and Dairy Microbiology||Molecular Microbiology|
|Antimicrobial Compounds||Food Microbiology|
As you can see by the lists above, the umbrella field of Microbiology covers a diversity of disciplines and that the two major divisions in the field, medical and non-medical, overlap extensively. Microbiologists are broadly trained individuals with expertise in ecology, physiology, taxonomy, evolution, genetics, etc. All this knowledge is directed at single celled organisms that can be difficult to study due to their size. Also in the above lists, though not necessarily obvious, is the simple fact that individuals who study microbiology are involved in nearly all aspects of life. The take home message is that you should be able to find a job somewhere using the knowledge you have gained in your academic endeavors.
Medical Microbiology: Diagnostics of disease and development of methods of disease control.
Immunology: The study of the immune system and how it can be used to control disease through vaccine development. Also placed in this category is the development of diagnostic tools based on the immune system.
Epidemiology: The study of disease and disease transmission. Individuals in this field are quite often employed by public health departments. Involved in preventing and controlling disease outbreaks, predicting outbreaks, and finding new and old diseases in the process of emerging as a threat to the general populace.
Virology: The study of viruses. Endeavors in this field are directed at understanding viruses so that potential cures may be developed to supplement current vaccination protocols. These studies are doubly important in light of the current HIV pandemic.
Molecular Pathogenesis: This is the study of the molecular events that occur during the progress of a disease. Information from these studies has the potential to direct the development of third generation pharmaceuticals that will allow us to combat diseases that are becoming resistant to our current pharmacopoeia of drugs.
Food and Dairy Microbiology: A large portion of the work accomplished in this field is directed at detecting pathogens before they reach the public and cause havoc. New methods of food preservation along with new methods of detecting contaminating organisms are examined. Some individuals in this field are also involved in the development of new flavors, textures, and colors in the foods we eat.
Antimicrobial Compounds: Individuals in this field screen novel organisms for the production of useful secondary metabolites. Some are involved in the design of the so-called third generation drugs specifically tailored to treat specific infections.
Molecular Microbiology: This field is an outgrowth of the original field of molecular genetics. Investigators focus on the molecular aspects of microbial growth and interactions.
Genomics: This is the newest field in microbiology. Here entire genomes are compared and examined to determine innumerable parameters regarding prokaryotic life. Information resulting from these studies have implications in everything from Evolution to Drug design.
Proteomics: An ancillary field to genomics, proteomics examines the open reading frame data obtained from the genome projects and attempts to identify the expression pattern of all putative proteins seen in the sequence data using 2D-PAGE as the primary tool.
Anaerobic Microbiology: A substantial portion of the microbial world lives without oxygen. This field has made significant gains in the past decade due to enhanced equipment and technology. Information obtained in these studies affect all aspects of microbiology.
Microbial Ecology: This is probably the most fundamental field in microbiology. However, due to the extreme difficulty in studying relationships between microscopic organisms, little progress has been made over the past century. This does not mean we have learned nothing, but on a relative knowledge scale, this field is lagging behind. Microbial ecology affects all aspects of human life.
Environmental Microbiology: This is a specialization of microbial ecology. Here individuals are interested in using microbes to advantage to remove pollutants from the environment. They are also involved in preventing microbes from causing problems in buildings and homes.
Water Purification and Treatment: As the name implies, you are working with water coming into and leaving the environs of humans. Very important for maintaining environmental quality and in the prevention of disease.
Bioremediation: Develop methods of degrading xenobiotic chemicals used in our day lives that contribute to the overall pollution problem.
Microbial Physiology: This field give us the ability to understand how microbes function at the metabolic level. Understanding of creatures at this level allows us to modify and/or exploit a microbe's metabolism to our advantage.
Food Microbiology: Investigations into food preservation, detection of spoilage and disease agents. Food flavor, texture, and color are also issues examined in this field.
Geomicrobiology: A hodgepodge, of specialties are found in this discipline which in itself is a specialization of microbial ecology. Microbes are examined for their roles in the cycling of inorganic nutrients at a regional and global scale. Roles of microbes in the weathering of minerals are also being intensively researched along with the limits at which life can exist. For those interested in space exploration, this is one of the hot fields to consider.
Aeromicrobiology: Examines specific adaptations of microbes for transport through the air.
Industrial Hygiene: Safety in the workplace. A good microbiologist can learn the necessary skills to function as an excellent industrial hygienist. Involved in OSHA compliance with an eye towards prevention of problems. Also asked to remediate problems after they have occurred.
Taxonomy: Currently, there is a renaissance occurring in the taxonomy of microbes. This is a highly technical field requiring expertise in a number of disciplines for accurate classification of the microbes under study.
Microbial Evolution: This field is devoted to trying to ascertain the evolutionary history of the prokaryotic world. Hints about the origins of life along with the development of the eukaryotic cell are being found by individuals in this field.
Bacterial Genetics: This is the field that used to be molecular biology prior to the "revolution" of the 1970's to 1980's. Jacob and Monod worked in this area and developed the basic model for genetic regulation that we all use at one level or another when doing our genetics. Techniques from this field are fundamental to many different endeavors.
Industrial Microbiology: Persons in this field can be viewed as process engineers. This is the world of production where microbes are used to produces specific products for sale. Individuals in this field work with large scale culturing as batches and as continuous culture systems.
Biodiversity: Researchers in this field are attempting to identify and catalogue the microbial world. Due to the inherent difficulties associated with isolating microbes from environmental sources, research is heavily dependent on PCR and other molecular techniques to identify prokaryotes and single-celled eukaryotic organisms present in a given sample. Research in this field provides raw data for the evolutionist and ecologist along with the added benefit of providing new organisms which may be a source of new secondary metabolites. Finally, if you are looking for the next "Taq DNA polymerase" this is where you need to start. However, be aware of regulatory and treaty issues.
Useful Web Resources
|American Society for Microbiology||www.asm.org|
|Society for Industrial Microbiology||www.simhq.org|
|Food and Drug Administration||www.fda.gov|
|US Dept. of Agriculture||www.usda.gov|
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention||www.cdc.gov|
|American Association of Immunologists||www.aai.org|