Microbiology is a distinct area of study that also interfaces with many other areas, for example epidemiology, immunology, drug development, biotechnology, conservation, pollution remediation, geology, sanitation, food and beverage production, urban planning, and engineering. Microbiologists often work with other scientists, health professionals or engineers, as micro-organisms affect pretty much every area of life.
Micro-organisms are so diverse and they can do so many different things that there are almost unlimited new things to find out and a huge range of different opportunities in research.
Microbiologists love to study these tiny organisms and are fascinated by their complex and unique lifestyles. Microbes can grow almost everywhere – from the deserts of the Sahara to the permafrost of the Antarctic, and in the deepest oceans, boiling mud pools, salt lakes and industrial wastelands. And they are extremely ubiquitous – on and in our own bodies we have just as many microbial cells as we have human cells, and there are up to one billion bacteria, several metres of fungal filaments and several thousand protozoa in a single teaspoon of garden soil.
Microbes live and interact in their own microscopic communities filled with predators, parasites, friends and foe. They have such a huge variety of different forms that they are sometimes described as the closest thing we will ever meet to aliens without leaving earth.
Probably the major misunderstanding is that microbiology is all about infectious diseases, and micro-organisms are all bad. In fact, most microbes perform essential roles in the ecosystem and help to produce the air we breathe, a lot of the food we eat, they recycle our waste and – as long as things are in balance - they promote good health. It’s only a tiny fraction of micro-organisms that are able to cause disease, although admittedly as with the current COVID pandemic, this can have major consequences.
Another common misconception is that microbiologist spend their lives looking down microscopes. In fact the study of microbiology can take many forms, and today many of us do just as much molecular biology and bioinformatics as microscopy.
Just as micro-organisms and the roles they perform are diverse, so are microbiology careers. Our graduates often have careers in hospital, industrial or research labs. They might perform diagnostics, quality assurance, drug testing, or a vast range of research and development procedures, to name a few. Many get jobs in food and water testing and safety, others in food and agriculture production, or in the development and production of pharmaceuticals and other biotechnological products.
There are many non-lab jobs too, in sales, customer service and liaison, management, education, scientific writing, policy development, public health or urban planning. A microbiology career can take you to so many different and interesting places.