Graduate profile - Kristin Miller

Molecular Biotechnology/Microbiology Graduate

Kristin Miller

Career Path

Bachelor of Science (Molecular Biotechnology)
Majored in Microbiology
Completed Honours in Microbiology in 2003

Worked as a research assistant
Currently a PhD candidate

The same day she submitted her Honours thesis, Kristin Miller saw the advertisement that led to her first full-time job as a science graduate.

Working in a laboratory associated with the Sydney Catchment Authority, Kristin helped keep Sydney’s water supply safe from outbreaks of Cryptosporidium by identifying the animals responsible for contaminating water catchment areas.

Rather than looking for footprints by the water’s edge, Kristin used her training in Microbiology to develop methods of identifying the bacteria that indicated whether cows, domestic animals, wildlife or humans were the culprits.

“My job as a research assistant was to extract DNA from bacteria in faeces collected from the catchment area. By looking for genetic differences in Clostridium perfringens, a particularly long-lived and robust bacterium, I could identify which animals had been responsible for contamination incidents. This is because the gut of each kind of animal provides a different environment, in which different strains of Clostridium are able to grow.”

Once identified, authorities managing the area, such as farmers or National Parks and Wildlife officers, develop remediation strategies to manage the outbreak before the water reaches the distribution pipes for Sydney. These efforts in the laboratory and on the ground reduce the risk of repeating the 1998 scare of a Cryptosporidium outbreak that forced Sydney’s inhabitants to boil their drinking water.

Surprisingly, Kristin never envisaged that she would end up in a laboratory. “I actually began in a BSc (Bioinformatics) but discovered that programming wasn’t my thing, so transferred to a BSc (Molecular Biotechnology) at the end of my first year. It turned out to be exactly what I wanted – I got to combine study in Molecular Biotechnology, an emerging field, with a major in Microbiology, an established science field.”

“Studying science at university is fantastic for learning about new fields. In high school, the chemistry and biology taught is very general. At university, there are so many specialised fields to choose from, you have the opportunity to study something you’re really interested in.”

“An advantage of the Bachelor of Science (Molecular Biotechnology) is your exposure to the business side of science. This really suits someone who doesn’t want to go into research, but still wants a science-related position, for example, managing clinical trials for drug development. Alternatively, you could enrol in a combined science/commerce degree for a more thorough business grounding.”

Of course, you could choose to stay in the laboratory, as Kristin has. She went on to do Honours in Microbiology with Molecular and Microbial Biosciences lecturer and researcher Dr Tom Ferenci, on the differences in pathogenic (disease-causing) and non-pathogenic E. coli.

“I got my job because my Honours research was in a related Microbiology area and I had the Molecular Biotechnology background. Also, my boss felt he would be able to teach me anything I didn’t know. It was a great feeling to get the first full-time job I’d ever applied for.”

The laboratory environment suited Kristin so well that she has begun a PhD this year looking for anti-cancer compounds in traditional Chinese herbs.

Kristin's advice

Studying at university is quite different from high school. The topics are so varied you need to consult many textbooks and track down other sources to cover everything you’re learning, particularly when the fields you’re studying are new. As simple as it sounds, turning up to all the lectures and taking your own notes gives you a real head start when it comes to studying for your exams because you know what the lecturers consider important and many of the concepts are much easier to understand when explained verbally.