The reason I became a microbiologist

Even though I am still at the very early stages of my career, I still get asked (quite frequently) “why did you want to become a Microbiologist?” There have been a few influencing factors…

First I have to thank my superb microbiology lecturers at Sheffield Hallam University. Up until the 2nd year of my undergraduate degree, I had little interest in microbiology. From way back doing my GCSEs, through my Biology A-level and the first year of my degree, I was far more interested in plant biology and botany. Although this will always remain an area of interest for me, it was both the medical and environmental microbiology modules I took in my second year of my BSc that convinced me that microbiology ‘wasn’t that bad’. Eventually my negativity was converted to positivity, and then even a love for the subject!

Pondering through old medical microbiology textbooks, there was something just so fascinating about all of the different diseases, and the microorganisms that cause them. This was even more the case when studying environmental microbiology and bioremediation, discovering bacteria that can break down hydrocarbon pollutants, and utilise methane as a carbon source. This sparked a thirst for knowledge, the same one I had (and still have) for plants. Just like how I wanted to learn about different plant species: ones that can live in extreme environments and about their unusual anatomy, I now wanted to discover about all the different species of bacteria, viruses and fungi.

I decided that I wanted to contribute research to a field that would directly help people. I wanted to do the right thing, the noble thing, and help people! But not cancer research, because plenty of people already do that. And I was deterred from researching plants because of the difficulties surrounding genetic modification I had learnt about, and also because it all seemed to be centred around molecular biology. But microbiology was microbiology, and didn’t involve much molecular biology (which at the time I hated!), right? In my naiive second-year head, that made sense to me. In hindsight, and now on a Molecular Biology and Biotechnology PHD, I realise it was a little silly of me to think that! I got lucky, but the decisions I have made have led me to my current career.

The reason I wanted to help people was triggered by my Grandad being seriously affected by a bacterial infection. Don’t get me wrong, I have always wanted to have a meaningful career and contribute to society, but this particular event set in stone what I wanted to do. To cut a long story short, my Grandad was admitted to hospital for a routine knee replacement. He was then one of the unfortunate few to get an MRSA infection. I don’t remember the specifics of the infection (I can’t remember if it was related to the surgical site), but regardless the infection lengthened his hospital stay and recovery period, and put his life in danger. That is my motivation to study microbiology, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else, and if I can make even a small contribution that someday will save a life, my work will be worth it.

I think there are some important lessons/reminders for lecturers here! You cannot make every student fascinated about every subject. There is a big difference between interest and fascination. All students studying any subject should be interested, and I believe it is the role of lecturers to retain, maintain, and then encourage the growth of that interest. But true fascination will only be for a few subjects, and usually (like in my own experience) will be inspired a great deal by personal events. My second, and far more important point, is that you can make some students fascinated about a subject. My personal experience alone was not enough to push me towards microbiology, it was the enthusiasm and teaching skills of my lecturers that inspired me.

Despite my initial misgivings about molecular biology and biotechnology, I am now studying it for my PhD. I forced myself to take the subject in the final year of my BSc, and I am so glad that I did. I realised that in order to make contributions to my chosen field, I need to embrace techniques that did (and still do) intimidate me. This is an important lesson for undergraduates – make sure you fully understand what your field of interest entails, and if there are some parts you don’t like, don’t hide from them. Hit them head-on and tackle the issues.

Soon I will follow up this post, by sharing the story of my first piece of microbiology research, what impact it will have, and how closely it ended up relating to what had affected my Grandad.

Thanks for reading!

Microbe Stew


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