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Viruses have been plaguing humans since the beginning of history. Some, more lethal than others, such as chickenpox, Ebola, AIDS, hepatitis, and influenza (the flu) are viruses that both humans and virologists have been struggling with. Virologists study viral microscopic organisms that cause these diseases. They attempt to create new vaccines and medicines that will help cure these diseases and provide immunity to humans.

Virologists study how viruses have the capacity for replication in animal, plant and bacterial cells. To replicate, viruses appropriate functions of the host cells on which they are parasites. The viral parasite causes changes in the cell, directing the host cell's metabolism to the production of new virus particles. Viruses come in two basic types, those that have a genome of DNA or RNA. Accordingly, viruses infect all major groups of organisms including vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, fungi and bacteria.

Many people misunderstand the nature of viruses and mistakenly believe that drugs like antibiotics help to combat the virus. For instance, if you contract the flu, the best medicine is rest and drinking lots of fluids. Nevertheless, there are many preventative vaccinations now available to humans, such as the hepatitis B vaccine or typhus shots. These vaccines are designed to immunize people against contracting viral infections instead of dealing with them after the fact, which for many viruses is impossible to do. For those traveling to foreign regions at risk for various viral epidemics, they are advised to get inoculated with region-specific vaccines to prevent catching a lethal virus.

The most common types of viruses are the "cold" viruses of which there are about 130 different types. Usually these infections are not very serious and may just cause a runny nose and malaise for a couple of days. Viruses are spread by contact with infected individuals. The usual method of transmission is person-to-person contact through mucus or blood secretions. Some types of viruses can be transmitted through the air. Also, drug users who share needles can easily become infected if the needle is contaminated with AIDS or hepatitis.

Virologists who work on researching dangerous organisms, such as Ebola or AIDS must take special safety precautions, such as wearing protective suits and working in biohazard areas, restricted only to these scientists. They usually work in teams with other microbiologists such as parasitologists, immunologists and bacteriologists, performing interdisciplinary research studies. Some may also work as medical doctors, treating patients with viral infections.

A virologist's work seems to be never ending, as new viruses continually emerge. The career can be very rewarding as virologists make discoveries to help cure our deadliest scourges. There is a great deal of research being conducted on new treatments, improved diagnostics and vaccines.
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  Interests and Skills  
Virologists must possess an innate interest in natural phenomena and the causes and effects of viruses. They enjoy performing scientific research, and usually have 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 microbiology, biochemistry and genetics. Virologists are usually well organized, enjoy working in the laboratory with equipment and performing tasks that require precision.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct research into the structure, function, ecology, biotechnology and genetics of viruses and related micro-organisms
  • Conduct experiments to isolate and make cultures of specific viruses under controlled conditions
  • Research how viruses form and their consequences on human, animal and plant health
  • Analyze nucleic acids, proteins and other substances produced by viruses
  • Perform tests on water, food and the environment to detect harmful viral infections and control sources of contamination
  • Conduct molecular studies and experiments into genetic expression, gene manipulation and recombinant DNA technology
  • Observe, identify and classify all viral micro-organisms
  • Isolate micro-organisms involved in breaking down pollutants
  • Develop new vaccines to cure viral infections and immunize people, plants and animals from future infection
  • May supervise biological technologists and technicians and other scientists
  • Virologists work indoors in laboratories and sometimes on computers. The high pressure of having to meet project deadlines can be stressful and will often result in long hours. Generally, virologists put in long workweeks. For those working with toxic or harmful chemicals, following safety rules and wearing protective, sometimes biohazard equipment will help avoid chemical injury or exposure to infection. Preventive inoculations will also help to protect medical virologists from the risk of disease.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Virologists work for governments, hospitals, colleges and universities, industrial laboratories, companies in the agricultural industry, pharmaceutical companies, food and beverage companies, diagnostic laboratories, biotechnology firms, and bioremediation companies. Contract work is becoming more common in this occupation, focusing on individual research projects to formulate vaccines.

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

Other advancement opportunities for virologists may also depend on the size and nature of the employing organization and the qualifications of the employee. They can move into related biology fields such as biochemistry, genetics, ecology, parasitology 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 bare minimum educational requirement for becoming a virologist is a four-year Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in microbiology or immunology, as most universities do not offer an undergraduate degree in virology. Those who have a bachelor's degree are qualified to work as laboratory assistants or technicians. A master's degree or PhD is always required for senior research positions. Those who have PhDs may continue their training as post-doctoral fellows and teach at the university level. Medical virologists preparing to work in hospitals or treat patients must take a medical degree (MD) and then specialize in virology.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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