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Microbiology: The Universe in a Single Cell

What is Microbiology

Microbiologists study organisms that live as single cells or in simple, multicelled arrangements. It sounds like it means just working in a laboratory with microscopes, but microbes are found everywhere—from deep-sea vents to Antarctica—so microbiologists can work anywhere. Astrobiology, exploring life on other planets, starts with understanding microbial diversity on Earth, so a microbiologist might study how microbes thrive in harsh environments. Microbiologists might do medical research, since humans live peacefully with billions of microbes, but the pathogenic ones can cause serious diseases. Microbiologists in the food industries grow and engineer bacteria and yeast to help produce everything from vitamins to wine.

Silvija Bilokapic is in the middle of a big experiment, while all around her, the laboratory buzzes with students, scientists, and visitors. In the middle of the chaos, Silvija takes a few minutes to think about why she chose a career in microbiology. “I did not choose science, but science chose me,” she says, because she has always been drawn to biology. “I was also lucky to have good, innovative, and enthusiastic teachers, who are very important to opening and motivating young minds.” Now Silvija is a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a lab that works on communication systems inside cells. Silvija and her coworkers are figuring out the structure of the complicated little protein gates that control how information and molecules go in and out of the nucleus. “It is not well understood, and every little piece of the global picture that we get about the structure is very exciting and motivating,” she says.

© Olivier Douliery/Abacapress for L’Oréal Corporate Foundation
Silvija Bilokapic

For young women considering a career in biology, Silvija says, “if you are honest with yourself and follow your heart—it sounds corny—but you will know what you want to do. Then, you just have to try to get there.” Getting there might mean seeing the world along the way. From her home country of Croatia, Silvija has worked in Zurich, Switzerland (on a UNESCO-L’Oréal Fellowship), and now Boston, Massachusetts.

Globetrotting Microbiologists

Miroslava Atanassova is also a global microbiologist. From her home country of Bulgaria, she has studied and worked in France and Belgium, and is now doing postdoctoral research in Spain. Eventually, she plans to return to Bulgaria, to a university department that specializes in “extremophilic” bacteria. These microbes live in harsh environments like hot springs and deep sea vents, where the temperatures are near boiling. They also thrive at the North and South poles, or where conditions might include high amounts of acid or salt, or low amounts of water. These are the microorganisms that interest astrobiologists, who study if life is possible on planets like Mars.

Markel Redondo/Abacapress for L’Oréal Corporate Foundation
Miroslava Atanassova

Like Silvija, Miroslava has always been interested in science. “I’ve been interested in biology since my teenage years, and I grew up in a family of scientists.” She laughs and says for her 15th birthday, she asked for a book on genetics, and says it was “quite a good investment.” Her parents encouraged her interests. Her mother was a chemistry professor who let her spend time in the laboratory, and Miroslava always had access to a computer and a parent who was ready and able to explain how to use the software. “I have always been in love with nature,” says Miroslava, who received a UNESCO-L’Oréal Fellowship in 2001. “I liked going out to the forest or the mountains, picking up things, and looking at them with a simple microscope I had at home. I read a lot of books about nature and animals. All of this—my natural interest and curiosity, and the benefits of being in a family of researchers—led me into a career in natural sciences.”

Now Miroslava studies microorganisms that live in unusual environments, like bacteria that happily grow in water that is as hot as scalding tap water. To her, microbiology is learning about “the universe of microorganisms, known and unknown.” When she was a student, however, Miroslava made a choice between a career in biochemistry or in microbiology. She says an encouraging microbiology teacher made all the difference. Besides good teachers, she says her education required determination. Scientists need “dedication, patience, and they need to seek out training from the best specialists in the field.”

Microbiology as Diplomacy

Not all microbiologists grow up in a family of scientists, or even start out studying science in school. Cindy Quezada was an international relations major in college, and was interested in how to eliminate poverty and raise the standard of living for people throughout the world. “But I was fascinated by science,” she says, “And since I was interested in how to improve conditions in developing countries, I got interested in microbiology, because bacteria cause a lot of harm in the third world, where children are still dying of diarrhea. Many diseases of the poor are caused by microorganisms.”

Starting with a chemistry class, Cindy took more science classes, and eventually earned a Ph.D. for her work studying a single bacterial protein that senses the cell’s environment. She was still interested in global health, though, and a UNESCO-L’Oreal Fellowship allowed her to work in Rwanda in Africa. There, she investigated whether a fast, but technically complex, test for the bacterial disease tuberculosis could be used in areas with few modern resources. “In some places, I basically had to build my work environment from scratch,” she says. Cindy trained some Rwandan women in the techniques, and together they wrote a clinical research paper about using the diagnostic test in resource-poor settings.

Ann Sappenfield
Cindy Quezada

Back in the United States, Cindy is no longer in the laboratory, but is at the State Department in Washington, D.C., “working on incorporating science into U.S. foreign policy.” Her work is part of a broad effort to encourage cooperation between the United States and the Muslim world on science and technology, which President Obama outlined as part of a speech he gave in Egypt in June 2009. Cindy is also working on strengthening the science and technology relationship between the United States and Brazil, through joint projects in health development in Third World countries. “Science,” she says, “can be a great diplomacy tool—collaborations between governments, foreign labs, and the exchange of students between labs can help promote development, prosperity, and even peace.”

Patience and Motivation, Mobility and Creativity

The path to a career in microbiology isn’t always easy. Miroslava says you have to be ready to “assimilate large amounts of information and keep up-to-date in a rapidly developing field. You have to learn an entire, specific way of thinking and it takes a lot of patience.” Specifically, she says, be prepared for a long period of studying and training, which is a normal part of any scientific career. Most scientists enjoy the unpredictability of their work, but this can make for long hours, when experiments don’t turn out as planned. Microbiology can keep you on the move. Silvija notes that “scientists are known to move from place to place every four or five years,” as part of their training. It may not be an ideal field for homebodies, but it’s great for women who are interested in working in different parts of the world, and who want to go wherever new discoveries are waiting.

“If you are really interested in a scientific career, you must have a strong will and motivation, and be prepared to do a large part of the learning and training without supervision or help,” says Miroslava. The rewards, she says, include a unique point of view on the environment and society, and a deep understanding of biological processes and phenomena. Miroslava also says microbiology offers “freedom, mobility, and creativeness in your everyday existence which do not exist in many other fields. The creative side is finding out new details about how life is organized, learning something new all the time.”

Cindy also says science means having drive, passion, and creativity. “Just do what really excites you and what doesn’t seem like work,” she says. She also advises having fun, and mixing in your other interests. “Just because you’re a scientist doesn’t mean that is all you do. People think science is boring, but it’s not. It’s not restricted, and there are many ways of incorporating other subjects and interests of your life into science.” As an example, Cindy has worked in science communication and outreach, which has let her combine her microbiology background with her interests in journalism, photography, and even dance. She once connected traditional Spanish dancing to microbiology, specifically host-pathogen interactions, for a program in New York City that brings scientists and artists together for a monthly public performance. Cindy talked about a communication system inside cells, and how pathogenic microbes can take over that system. Then, a flamenco dancer and musicians demonstrated intricate and interdependent signaling and communication between artists. “Science is everywhere,” says Cindy. “It opens your mind, and opens doors. If you can link science to flamenco, you can link it to anything.”