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Many people are unaware of the micro-sized world that we co-exist with. Just because the human eye cannot detect everything does not mean that the millions of organisms that flourish among us are nonexistent. Interestingly, microbiologists have identified less than one percent of their species. Microbiologists study living things called micro-organisims that are too small to be seen without a microscope. They research bacteria, fungi, viruses, tissues, cells, pharmaceuticals and plant and animal toxins.

Microbiologists study the mutation, characteristics, and effects of micro-organisms to better understand their relation to human, plant, and animal health. They also investigate how these micro-organisms function in the production of vitamins, antibiotics, amino acids, alcohols, and sugars. The results of their research have produced breakthroughs in medical, agricultural, industrial, sanitary, and other scientific fields.

Microbiologists help scientists and physicians in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of infections in animals and humans by investigating how organisms cause disease and their role in disease processes. Work in microbiology is often interdisciplinary, so they may work closely with chemists, biochemists, geneticists, genetic engineers, pathologists and other physicians, environmentalists, civil engineers, veterinarians and geologists.

Microbiologists use a variety of specialized equipment such as gas chromatographs and high pressure liquid chromatographs, electrophoresis units, thermocyclers, fluorescence activated cell sorters and phosphoimagers. They may also use computers in conducting experiments. It is common to find a microbiologist peering through the lens of a microscope or performing other related experiments in a laboratory. However, the nature of the work may vary considerably with each assignment.

Most microbiologists specialize in a specific field of microbiology, such as bacteriology, biotechnology, immunology, molecular biology, virology or parasitology. They may also be focused on clinical or environmental microbiology.

Clinical microbiologists perform laboratory tests to provide physicians with information needed for diagnosis and treatment. They are primarily concerned with the control of communicable diseases and other health hazards in the community. This includes isolation and identification of micro-organisms in specimens from patients as well as from water supplies, food, and milk. Another area microbiologists may focus on is the environment. Environmental microbiologists are generally involved in testing water in lakes and streams for biological and chemical pollutants and with inspecting food and water in processing plants. They also try to control the spread of infectious agents by insects, rodents, and wildlife.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Microbiologists need an innate interest in natural phenomena and scientific research, and an inquiring mind. They should have good manual dexterity for transferring micro-organisms from one culture medium to another without contaminating samples, and the ability to pay close attention to details.

Most have a strong aptitude and background in chemistry, biochemistry and genetics. Microbiologists are usually well organized, enjoy working in the laboratory with equipment and performing tasks which require precision.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct research into the structure, function, ecology, biotechnology and genetics of micro-organisms, including bacteria, fungi, protozoans, and algae
  • Conduct experiments to isolate and make cultures of specific micro-organisms under controlled conditions
  • Analyze nucleic acids, proteins and other substances produced by micro-organisms
  • Perform tests on water, food and the environment to detect harmful micro-organisms and control sources of pollution and contamination
  • Conduct molecular or biochemical studies and experiments into genetic expression, gene manipulation and recombinant DNA technology
  • Observe, identify and classify micro-organisms
  • Isolate micro-organisms involved in breaking down pollutants
  • Develop modified microbes for use in the production of speciality biologicals or for gene transfer
  • Find ways for microorganisms to help humans
  • May supervise biological technologists and technicians and other scientists
  • Microbiologists, particularly those working in environmental, agricultural and veterinary fields, work outdoors some of the time. However, the majority of the work is performed indoors in laboratories and on computers. The pressure of having to meet project deadlines can be stressful and will often result in longer hours. Generally, microbiologists put in long workweeks. For those working with toxic or harmful chemicals, following safety rules and wearing protective equipment will help avoid chemical injury or exposure to infection. Preventive inoculations will also help to protect medical microbiologists from the risk of disease.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Microbiologists work for governments, hospitals, colleges and universities, industrial laboratories, companies in the agricultural industry, pharmaceutical companies, food and beverage companies, diagnostic laboratories, biotechnology firms, bioremediation companies, and companies in the oil industry. Contract work is becoming more common in this occupation, as of late.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Long-term advancement will certainly depend on the education level of the microbiologist. Those with master's degrees may work as professionals in laboratory settings, performing experiments. Microbiologists with PhDs may conduct and lead individual and group research projects and teach in universities, manage hospital (clinical) diagnostic microbiology laboratories or advance to senior scientific appointments in government or industry.

Advancement opportunities for microbiologists depend on the size and nature of the employing organization and the qualifications of the employee. Microbiologists can move into related biology fields such as biochemistry, genetics, ecology, virology or biochemical engineering. They can also become clinical technicians in health care facilities, quality control officers in the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, or bioremediation specialists.

  Educational Paths  
The minimum education requirement for microbiologists is a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology, biochemistry or chemistry with some background in genetics. Those who have a bachelor's degree are qualified to work as laboratory assistants or technicians. A master's or PhD is usually required for senior research positions. Those who have PhDs may continue their training as post-doctoral fellows. Medical microbiologists preparing to work in hospitals usually take a medical degree (MD), then specialize in microbiology.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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