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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
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:
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?"
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
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
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