Monday, February 21, 2011

Germ-I-Check

This was my first-ever career profile for an education paper, in this case, Free Press Journal's Knowledge, Monday, February 21, 2011. I am glad Shraddha gave me the opportunity to write on a subject very different from what I usually write on. Do check it out!

GERM-I-CHECK

Lord Mahavira postulated the existence of unseen microbiological life in his teachings as as early as 6th century BCE. This existence is no longer challenged, as the field of microbiology has evolved exponentially and become one of the most popular fields since the first observation in 1676. Eisha Sarkar examines the career options in the field 

Think microbiology and we think of a geek in a white laboratory coat working with pipettes, Bunsen burners, petri dishes and microscopes. But there’s more to the science than that. The study of microbes has actually changed the way we look at the world. 

When Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek first observed bacteria under the simple microscope in the seventeenth century, little had he imagined that his discovery would lead to the creation of a multi-billion dollar industry which revolves around the study, usage, containment and elimination of germs!

In simple words, microbiology is the study of microorganisms - everything from fungi to amoeba, from bacteria to protists, from viruses to prions - that cannot be seen by the naked human eye. Many of them are parasitic and interact with the immune system. Through the centuries these microscopic bugs have caused much damage to plant and animal life that have resulted in famines, deaths and even the downfall of governments. A flu epidemic can ground more flights than terrorists can. The uncontrolled infestation of a crop by a fungus can lead to food shortage, starvation and mass migration. And a deadly mutating virus flummoxes the best brains in the world today as spreads across continents killing thousands of people.

Microbiology aims to study the interactions between microbes and their environment. The better we understand them, the greater will be our chances of curbing the spread of diseases and making the world a healthier place to live in.

What do microbiologists do?

By combining their knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology, and medicine, microbiologists conduct exacting laboratory research using highly specialised equipment that lead to the development of new vaccines, drugs, biofuels, and agricultural products.

Wide range of careers
Once considered as the second option after medicine, with the advent of biotechnology and increase in funding of research and development of drugs and increased investment in healthcare, microbiology has become a hot career option for students. The range of job opportunities for microbiologists is as diverse as the organisms they work with:
  • Bacteriologists conduct research into the characteristics of bacteria or a particular aspect of bacteriology such as public health bacteriology, pharmaceutical bacteriology, hospital (clinical) bacteriology, environmental microbiology or biotechnology.
  • Environmental microbiologists study of the composition and physiology of microbial communities in the environment and how they can be used to curb pollution
  • Food microbiologists study microorganisms that cause food-borne illness and spoilage
  • Industrial microbiologists usually work in field of biotechnology and study microorganisms that produce useful products
  • Medical microbiologists/clinical researchers are often doctorswho have chosen to specialise in the diagnosis and treatment of microbial diseases in patients
  • Agricultural microbiologists study plant-associated microbes and plant and animal diseases, microbial degradation of organic matter and soil nutrient transformations
  • Biochemists study how organisms obtain energy, consume nutrients and reproduce
  • Biotechnologists manipulate genes in order to modify microorganisms that make new products such as insulin, drugs, food crops, etc
  • Cell biologists determine how microorganisms and cell function
  • Geneticists crack the code of life that is written with four letters, A, C, G, and T and the process by which organisms inherit and transmit genetic information.
  • Immunologists investigate, study, analyze and/or treat disease processes that involve the immune system
  • Science writers write about the latest research findings to enable the common man to understand the developments in the field
  • Teachers educate students about the usefulness and uniqueness of microorganisms
  • Virologists study viruses and bacteriophages and keep track of how viruses mutate and the new forms that keep cropping up

Prospects
Dr Smita Limaye, Head of Department of Microbiology at R K Talreja College and Associate Professor at University of Mumbai has been teaching the subject for 24 years and seen a recent shift in interest towards the multi-disciplinary field of biotechnology. “This is the era of biotechnology. Because of their in-depth knowledge of their field, microbiology students are better-placed than even BSc Biotechnology students because the latter study many things but have little knowledge of anatomy, symmetry, etc. By taking up microbiology, you have the options of working in pharma, food and biotech industries.”

Clinical microbiology is a very lucrative option for those with a Doctor of Medicine in Microbiology (MD-Microbiology) degree. Dr Aruna Poojary, microbiologist, Breach Candy Hospital says, “Clinical microbiology has proven to be the fastest growing science in the last decade, thanks to the development of various nucleic acid amplification techniques or ‘molecular microbiology’ as it is also called. A clinical microbiologist diagnoses infections, advises on the appropriate antimicrobial therapy, prevention and control of outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics, understands the epidemiology of infectious diseases and conducts research. Thus clinical microbiologists can work in diagnostics or specialists in hospital infection control and prevention or as epidemiologists at organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). And the job’s lucrative too. Even in the government sector, fresh graduates appointed as lecturers get about Rs 50,000 per month.”

Research is also an option for those who are passionate about the subject such as Komal Loya, who is currently pursuing her PhD at JRG Stem Cell Biology, Hannover Medical School, Germany. “I opted for MSc Microbiology because it provided an opportunity to study biochemistry, virology, industrial microbiology, genetics and biotechnology, which would help me explore opportunities in the industry too. It was during my Master thesis at the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune that I actually thought of pursuing a PhD. I looked at options in Europe because I could finish a PhD in three to 3.5 years here while it takes five to six years in the US. Besides, Germany has state-of-the-art laboratories and immense amount of money is spent on research every year.”

Qualifications and skills 
 Since microbiology is a career mostly dependent on research and quality control, a Masters or a Doctorate in the field is necessary for most jobs.
Microbiologists are expected to employ a range of investigative, recording and analysis techniques, prepare, interpret and present data, using statistical programmes, qualitative and quantitative techniques, conduct literature surveys, undertake practical laboratory investigations in a safe, responsible and ethical manner, using, aseptic techniques, microscopy skills and microbial identification, and taking into account relevant health and safety regulations. Employers have high regard for those who identify, select, organise and communicate information, are able to work on your own and as part of a small team and use analytical and problem-solving skills.

Earnings
Typically, compensation for freshers with MSc degrees start at Rs 8000-12000 per month at Indian companies and Rs 15000-20000 a month in multinationals. Doctoral candidates get anwhere upwards of Rs 25000 per month.

Industry-wise payscales for 0-2 years of experience are as follows: 

  • Pharmaceuticals: Rs 1.2 lakh - Rs 2.42 lakh per annum
  • Research & Development, Biotechnology: Rs 1.2 lakh - Rs 2.54 lakh per annum
  • Health Care Services: Rs 10 lakh - Rs 2.35 lakh per annum
  • Professional Analytical / Laboratory Services: Rs 1.12 lakh - Rs 2.44 lakh per annum
  • Food Manufacturing: Rs 1.1 lakh - Rs 2.38 lakh per annum
(Source: www.payscale.com, corroborated by students in the field)

Study and training
Students who take up Biology at the HSC level can pursue BSc Microbiology. After graduation, you can pursue an MSc in applied microbiology, medical microbiology, food microbiology, industrial microbiology, genetics, biotechnology, bio-informatics, microbial technology, clinical research, analytical chemistry, molecular biology, biochemistry, forensic sciences and hospital management. After completing three semesters of MSc Microbiology and attaining a minimum of 55 per cent marks, you can take the CSIR- NET examination to get appointed as Junior Research Fellows (JRF) at CSIR laboratories. After your PhD, you will be eligible to register for PhD Senior positions such as Senior Research Fellow, Research Assistant or Research Associate in government and private research institutes.

Institutions
  • K C College
  • St Xavier's College
  • Ramnivas Ruia College
  • Wilson College
  • Sophia College
  • Institute of Science
  • Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing

Aptitude Check

Before embarking on a career in Microbiology give a thought to these following questions:
  1. Would you be able to sit in a lab (sometimes by yourself) day in and day out to work on a research project?
  2. Are you able to concentrate while you work/study?
  3. Are you meticulous?
  4. Do you rarely fall ill?
  5. Do you like statistics?
If you've responded with a "no" to more than three of the above questions, then this field is not for you.

EXPERTSPEAK 

“Pharma can’t survive without Microbiology”  
V Raghavendran, Quality Assurance Manager at Bafna Pharmaceuticals has been working in the pharma sector for 12 years. He reasons why it’s the best option for microbiologists

 
“Microbiologists in India, typically have two career options – one in the industry and the second in research. Since there are few research institutes in the country, the bulk of the microbiologists opt for industries such as pharmaceutical companies that cannot survive without them. The consistency, incentives and challenges that Pharma offers makes it a great career option. A fresher, who starts off with Rs 10,000 per month, can in a few years, depending on his/her talent and aptitude, earn around Rs 10 lakh a year. However, freshers should learn more about the industry before applying for jobs. There is zero tolerance towards error here, especially in companies where they produce sterile pharmaceuticals. It is a high-pressure job and we don’t get people who survive for long. Even toppers from universities who have all the theoretical knowledge find the practical applications tough. Also, a lot depends on the person’s nature too. Mostly, quiet people go in for jobs in Research and Development while others prefer to stick with Quality Assurance. Students need to condition themselves mentally before taking up Pharma jobs.”

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