Microbiologists study organisms that are too small to be seen by the naked eye, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa. Microbiologists that specialize in the environment are typically involved in projects that address issues of contamination, for example, identifying and quantifying pathogens, as well as bioremediation, which uses micro-organisms such as bacteria to clean up toxic substances. In addition to the environment, microbiologists are employed by industries such as pharmaceuticals and medicine, food production, and agriculture.

At a Glance

Imagine you are sitting at your bench carefully preparing samples as all around you scientists bustle back and forth with racks of test tubes and stacks of agar plates. You are a microbiologist and your lab is operating in high gear. Two days ago, a tanker truck hauling liquid waste from a nearby hog operation overturned on Reservoir Bridge, spilling its contents into your city's drinking water. As part of a team of microbiologists specializing in environmental emergency response, you were immediately called in to analyze the extent of contamination and the threat this spill poses to public health.

As a microbiologist with a specialty in environmental pathogens, you know how critical it is to quickly and accurately identify what has been spilled into the water supply. The reservoir's water is treated before being distributed to city residents, but without knowing what is in the water, there is no way of knowing if it is being removed at the treatment plant. You have spent the last two days analyzing samples from the reservoir and tanker, preparing dozens of cultures, and using DNA-based molecular techniques to identify potential pathogens.

Once you have established the presence and extent of contamination, you and your team can begin to develop ways to remove it, for example adding additional filters to the treatment plant, disinfecting the water with UV rays, or possibly adding other micro-organisms to the water supply that kill pathogens without posing a threat to the health of humans or the reservoir's aquatic communities. With your team's hard work and expertise, the city's water supply will be clean and back to normal in only a few more days.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a microbiologist:

  • Perform microbiological analyses of samples and specimens to detect the presence of pathogenic micro-organisms.
  • Perform microbiological analyses of samples and specimens for quality control purposes.
  • Prepare culture media, stains, reagents, and solutions.
  • Prepare samples, including dilutions, filtration, and spread plate analysis, using aseptic techniques.
  • Develop techniques for use in both research and routine monitoring.
  • Conduct research and literature reviews to investigate and solve problems.
  • Analyze test results and prepare reports.
  • Maintain pure microbial stocks.
  • Collaborate with government agencies, industry, and academia on the formulation of new or revised regulations for environmental standards.

Work Environment

Microbiologists work in a variety of locations, including:

In the office:

  • Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and experts in the field
  • Researching new technology and advancements in microbiology

In the lab:

  • Processing and analyzing samples, including disease-causing organisms
  • Researching new detection methods
  • Preparing cultures, stains, or solutions

In the field:

  • Giving presentations, including defending analytical results, to public meetings and conferences
  • Inspecting sites and collecting samples
  • Responding to requests from clients

Where to Work

There are a number of places microbiologists can find employment. They include:

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, or municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Environmental consulting firms
  • Biotechnology companies
  • Private labs
  • Other industries, for example, medical research, agriculture, and food production

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as a microbiologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a microbiologist is a university undergraduate degree. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a microbiologist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Microbiology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry

Although in most cases it is not necessary to become certified in order to work as a microbiologist, some practitioners choose to apply for professional status, for example Professional Biologist. The requirements for certification and professional status vary among provinces.

Role Models

Chantal Bouchard

Chantal Bouchard's current mission in life sounds too good to be true-she is working to develop a new herbicide that is biodegradable, environmentally friendly and created from recycled waste. If that is not enough, it has to be affordable for farmers and profitable for her employer. That such a herbicide might be possible says something about the vital role of science in the service of the environment.

What led Chantal into a career in microbiology? She credits her love of sciences, biology and math as a teenager. Summer science camps in Quebec fired her interest even more and led to undergraduate studies in biology (with a major in ecology) and a master's degree in plant physiology. Among the skills she considers important in her work, she rates interpersonal skills very high. "In dealing with farmers, you have to be prepared to make requests in the most diplomatic way possible.

To test new products, we sometimes have to make some strange requests." Chantal's formula for success is simple-"patience, patience, patience. And imagination and perseverance in developing new techniques and procedures." Plus, "You must love what you are doing."

Your Impact

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