Years of Experience: 5–6 years clinical experience, 5 years in research
Schooling: Four-year program + certification
Average salary in field: $65,000, but varies by state and employer (hospital, government, or industry)
What a microbiologist does
Microbiologists look at the bacteria and fungi that grow from a specific site in a patient’s body that the doctor thinks might be infected and has cultured, biopsied, or otherwise tested. We determine whether those bacteria are normal or not, and then test to see to which antibiotics they respond.
Hitting the books
I got my undergraduate degree in biology (I was originally premed), then went back to school, took additional graduate courses in microbiology for a full year, and then took the certification exams. That’s not typical — most people do a four-year program in lab science, which includes other specialties, but I knew I wanted to focus on microbiology.
I worked in clinical microbiology for a year before switching to research, then took a 12-year break from work while my children were young. When I came back to work, I started on the night shift, which is much quieter and calmer — it was the perfect way to ease back into things and catch up on new technologies. By the time I went back to the day shift, I was fully confident.
All in a day’s work
I actually don’t spend that much of my day behind a microscope. Bacteria are microscopic, but on a plate, we have a physical colony of millions of them that we can see and touch, so most of the time, we’re just looking at them with our eyes.
What typically happens is that we get a specimen — for example, a throat culture. We get the swab and put it on a petri dish filled with nutrients the bacteria can grow on, called an agar plate. Bacteria look different based on what their “food” is, and most bacteria will grow within one day, so the next day we look at the plates to see what’s growing there. For a strep culture, we can tell just by looking at it if it’s strep A or just normal things that grow in the throat. We typically do some biochemical testing specific to the bacteria to confirm our results.
When the bacteria grow, we decide whether they could be causing infection, and then we usually do what’s called sensitivities: We take those bacteria and put them in a suspension, then incubate them with different antibiotics at different concentrations to see what will kill them and at what dose. We determine if any bacteria are multidrug resistant, and then do additional testing to find out what’s behind their resistance, so we can guide the doctors to know which drugs will successfully eradicate the infection. (For something like Strep A, which is universally susceptible to penicillin, we rarely run sensitivities — we’ll only do that if the physician tells us a particular patient has a penicillin allergy.)
(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 630)
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