Microbiologists typically do the following:
Many microbiologists work in research and development conducting basic research or applied research. The aim of basic research is to increase scientific knowledge. An example is growing strains of bacteria in various conditions to learn how they react to those conditions. Other microbiologists conduct applied research and develop new products to solve particular problems. For example, microbiologists may aid in the development of genetically engineered crops, better biofuels, or new vaccines.
Microbiologists use computers and a wide variety of sophisticated laboratory instruments to do their experiments. Electron microscopes are used to study bacteria, and advanced computer software is used to analyze the growth of microorganisms found in samples.
It is increasingly common for microbiologists to work on teams with technicians and scientists in other fields, because many scientific research projects involve multiple disciplines. Microbiologists may work with medical scientists or molecular biologists while researching new drugs, or they may work in medical diagnostic laboratories alongside physicians and nurses to help prevent, treat, and cure diseases.
The following are examples of types of microbiologists:
Bacteriologists study the growth, development, and other properties of bacteria, including the positive and negative effects that bacteria have on plants, animals, and humans.
Clinical microbiologists perform a wide range of clinical laboratory tests on specimens collected from plants, humans, and animals to aid in detection of disease. Clinical and medical microbiologists whose work involves directly researching human health may be classified as medical scientists.
Environmental microbiologists study how microorganisms interact with the environment and each other. They may study the use of microbes to clean up areas contaminated by heavy metals or study how microbes could aid crop growth.
Industrial microbiologists study and solve problems related to industrial production processes. They may examine microbial growth found in the pipes of a chemical factory, monitor the impact industrial waste has on the local ecosystem, or oversee the microbial activities used in cheese production to ensure quality.
Mycologists study the properties of fungi such as yeast and mold. They also study the ways fungi can be used to benefit society (for example, in food or the environment) and the risks fungi may pose.
Parasitologists study the life cycle of parasites, the parasite-host relationship, and how parasites adapt to different environments. They may investigate the outbreak and control of parasitic diseases such as malaria.
Public health microbiologists examine specimens to track, control, and prevent communicable diseases and other health hazards. They typically provide laboratory services for local health departments and community health programs.
Virologists study the structure, development, and other properties of viruses and any effects viruses have on infected organisms.
Microbiologists need at least a bachelor’s degree in microbiology or a closely related program that offers substantial coursework in microbiology, such as biochemistry or cell biology. Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in biological sciences, including microbiology.
Most microbiology majors take core courses in microbial genetics and microbial physiology and elective classes such as environmental microbiology and virology. Students also should take classes in other sciences, such as biochemistry, chemistry, and physics, because it is important for microbiologists to have a broad understanding of the sciences. Courses in statistics, math, and computer science are important for microbiologists because they may need to do complex data analysis.
It is important for prospective microbiologists to have laboratory experience before entering the workforce. Most undergraduate microbiology programs include a mandatory laboratory requirement, but additional laboratory coursework is recommended. Students also can gain valuable laboratory experience through internships with prospective employers, such as drug manufacturers.
Microbiologists typically need a Ph.D. to carry out independent research and work in colleges and universities. Graduate students studying microbiology commonly specialize in a subfield such as bacteriology or immunology. Ph.D. programs usually include class work, laboratory research, and completing a thesis or dissertation.
Certifications are not mandatory for the majority of work done by microbiologists. However, certifications are available for clinical microbiologists and for those who specialize in the fields of food safety and quality and pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Certification may help workers gain employment in the occupation or advance to new positions of responsibility.