A career in cultural growth

Microbiologists combat disease, help maintain standards of food quality, and even fight terrorism.

Never before has microbiology had such an impact on public health. Diagnosing diseases such as meningitis, providing a quality control service to the food and drinks industry, and helping to investigate bioterrorism are just some of the activities today's microbiologists are involved in. Indeed, they undertake research, development and monitoring of micro-organisms in areas as diverse as medicine, industry, environment and education.

Never before has microbiology had such an impact on public health. Diagnosing diseases such as meningitis, providing a quality control service to the food and drinks industry, and helping to investigate bioterrorism are just some of the activities today's microbiologists are involved in. Indeed, they undertake research, development and monitoring of micro-organisms in areas as diverse as medicine, industry, environment and education.

Microbiology is the general term for the science based on the study and practical application of microbes such as viruses, fungi and bacteria. Microbiologists observe and monitor the development and effects of these microbes in close detail in order to protect public health. Jennifer Johnson, senior healthcare consultant at Inventures, claims it is a career with never a dull moment. "It is an incredibly rewarding job because you really make a difference to people's lives. You are always at the forefront of technology, and you are dealing with constantly changing subject matter," she says.

By far the most common area in which microbiologists work is healthcare. Johnson explains, "As a practitioner in this field, you actually diagnose infection in individuals. You use swabs and samples to identify micro-organisms, such as bacteria, which cause diseases. You then establish and monitor the antibiotic treatment required to kill them, stopping the disease."

Diseases include tuberculosis (TB), salmonella, typhoid and legionnaire's disease - and the ones you focus on will change all the time, particularly as outbreaks occur. Johnson explains that there are two main methods of analysis used by microbiologists in hospitals. "The traditional method involves taking the patient specimen and culturing it in order to identify bacteria that grows. But the more modern molecular method involves looking for specific DNA within the specimen or bacteria. It is at the cutting edge of technology and is much quicker at producing results. TB, for example, is now diagnosed in a molecular way because it takes two days, as opposed to 12 weeks using the traditional method."

For Laura Armitage, the attraction of becoming a microbiologist in the field of healthcare was the wide-reaching effect that her role would have. Working mainly on E. coli 0157 and salmonella, Armitage undertakes research to develop control strategies for food-borne pathogens. "I am mainly based in the laboratory, but my job is very varied," she says. "I really enjoy the fact that it brings together molecular biology, microbiology, biochemistry and fundamental biology."

According to Tim Paget, senior lecturer in medical microbiology at Hull University, over 50 per cent of biomedical science graduates who opt for a career in microbiology get jobs in the health service. "But there are a range of other popular employment areas including higher research, teaching, industry and medicine," he adds.

Indeed, the range of employers includes pharmaceutical companies, food and drink manufacturers, research institutions and government agencies, notably the Health Protection Agency. "Every microbiologist in every area achieves something significant in their work," insists Paget. "In a food and drinks company, for example, a microbiologist would run a laboratory responsible for the quality control and assurance of products coming in and out of that company, so it's an important regulatory role."

Even breweries employ microbiologists. Brian Hanson works in a small team of brewing microbiologists at one of the UK's major breweries, where he provides a quality assurance service by means of daily, weekly and monthly sampling schedules. "I value the fact that I'm actually using what I learned at university," he says. "I enjoy working as part of a team too. We can bounce ideas and support each other."

The organic nature of the brewing process brings many factors to the forefront that may not be as prevalent in other microbiological processes, he says. "Because we are dealing with live yeast, not every fermentation is identical," he adds, "and fresh problems and challenges can be encountered daily."

Career development within microbiology varies depending on the sector and employer. Some areas, such as the hospital service, have career development routes which Steve Davies, microbiology specialist advisor to the Institute of Biomedical Science, claims have recently improved. "Within healthcare, microbiologists are now able to take advantage of extending professional roles. In the past, when you got to a position of middle management, the next step would inevitably involve moving wholly into management, thereby missing out on being directly involved in science. But the new position of biomedical scientist consultant means it is now possible to have a high level microbiology role that involves management, medical research and giving clinical advice to patients. It is a huge benefit to people like me who value all these areas."

Experience of laboratory management and managing staff can be an advantage in progression. A qualification such as an MA or PhD can make promotion easier too - and you'll often find that you are supported by your employer. It is advisable to make contacts and get your name known, for example through involvement in high profile research projects and in publications.

It is also beneficial to develop your own area of specialist knowledge. Indeed, a number of microbiologists with over five years' experience progress into work that benefits from their specialist knowledge, such as pharmaceutical sales and marketing.

To be successful as a microbiologist, you'll need patience and a methodical approach, says Jennifer Johnson. "You really need an eye for detail and to be conscientious," she explains.

Laura Armitage agrees. "It's important to have a real interest in what you do," she says. "You've got to enjoy what you are doing; the level of pay in microbiology can be quite low, especially at the beginning of your career." Her advice is to choose your first position with care. "It can be instrumental in your career pathway," she explains.

Despite the overall shortage of microbiologists, there are high levels of competition for vacancies; if you think it could be the career for you, it is advisable to specialise as early on in your degree as possible.

'My job really makes a difference to people's wellbeing'

Paula Dadson is a microbiologist at the Calderdale Royal Hospital

It was my physics teacher at school who first suggested microbiology, and when I read up about it I became more and more interested in pursuing it as a career in a hospital laboratory. I was attracted to the fact that it's so hands on. I like the investigation side of it too - that you actually isolate organisms on a plate and do tests on them. But perhaps most appealing is that my daily job really makes a difference to people's wellbeing.

Partly because there is a shortage of microbiologists, I didn't find it too hard to get a job. Since qualifying I have been supported to do an MSc and that has helped with promotion - which is quite structured in the NHS.

We have found many old diseases, such as diphtheria, re-emerging. We are passionate about our work.

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