Career - Microbiologist


Bachelor of Applied Science, in Medical Laboratory Science, RMIT

Job description:
Medical Laboratory Scientist in Microbiology. I am responsible for diagnosing bacterial infections from body fluids and tissues.

How long have you been in your current role?
17 years

Previous roles?
At another position I did a little bit of research, I developed a diagnostic method to identify antibodies in patient sera (serum) to a specific bacterium (under direction of senior scientist).

Describe a typical day:
All depends what bench I'm on. These are benches in a science lab, and they have specialised equipment on them.

There are benches for analysing: blood cultures; urines; faeces; wounds; sterile fluids; antibiotic susceptibilities; mycology (fungi); serology; mycobacteriology (TB); virology; molecular microbiology.

The first 5 benches are fairly routine. In the morning we read agar plates where patient specimens have been cultured, and make decisions on whether a specific organism is causing an infection. These decisions are based on the nature of the specimen, the clinical notes provided by practitioners, the age and sex of the patient, and any extra (if needed) information or specific request provided to us by our Infectious Diseases Registrars. In the afternoon, we do microscopy, cell counts on body fluids, specific R and D projects and general maintenance of the laboratory.

The antibiotic bench is where we study groups of antibiotics against bacteria that have been isolated from patient specimens. Each isolate is studied individually against a group of antibiotics specific to the bacteria type. I find this bench challenging due to the constant emergence of drug resistant organisms and the changes to antimicrobial guidelines for reporting these drugs. We are constantly learning on this bench!

Bacterial serology is the study of serum. Here we look for antibodies to specific diseases, particularly viruses. The majority of requests are for blood born viruses, such as hepatitis and HIV. The work load in this lab is huge. Sera pour in constantly and we must have our wits about us all day.

Mycobacteria is a very busy lab and is very 'hands on'. In this lab we mainly screen for Tuberculosis from sputum and bronchial washings. We receive many specimens and we get many 'positives'.

Did you study maths in years 11 or 12? Why did you choose maths?
Yes I did, I studied what was then called Pure and Applied maths. I chose maths because it was a prerequisite for entering science at uni.

Did you study maths as part of your Uni/TAFE course? What kind of maths?
Yes I did, we did more maths than I care to remember! Pure and applied maths, statistics, physics and stoichiometry, which is the calculation of quantitative relationships of the reactants and products in a balanced chemical reaction.

Aspects of your work requiring maths:
We are fairly spoilt in a routine lab in which most of our calculations are done for us when plugging figures into a computer programmed to do that calculation! But we have to do some simple maths on a day to day basis.

The results can then be represented in a variety of graphs (pie, bar, bell curves etc) The PCR lab calculates their results by logarithms, and plot graphs, but then again they input all their data into a computer programme. Back when I was a young scientist, I remember plotting results using logarithmic graphs to calculate the amount of antibiotic present in a patient's serum.

Nowadays the Biochemistry lab does most of the actual calculations using an automated system, which is a lot quicker than taking readings and working every step out on paper.

What aspects of your job (if any!) do you dislike?
The urines bench can get a little boring! You can screen up to 60-90 urines per day - that's when I have the radio on pretty loud. Because we are in a hospital, the lab operates 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week. Evening shifts, weekends and public holidays are part of my life. We have a few people that do the night shift.

Do you have any advice for someone considering this career?
It's an investigative job, it's very interesting and you are constantly learning. It's a job not for the faint hearted, due to the nature of some specimens. You work closely with the Infectious Diseases physicians and you are the one diagnosing and helping unravel the puzzle that leads to the successful treatment of a patient.

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