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Small wonders

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:55 IST
Rahat Bano
Rahat Bano
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

In hundreds of labs around the country, thousands of microbiologists peer into the world of microorganisms, studying ways in which these can benefit mankind.

They have tamed microbes to rid soil of oil contamination and turned a fungus — T. viride, which itself is disease-causing micro-organism — into a bio-fungicide (a marketed product), just to give two
examples.

At the University of Delhi’s microbiology department, researchers have identified a fungus, which they are now attempting to use in making nutritious feed for cattle — currently being tested at Chhidana, Haryana, by the industry partner in the project.

“It (the feed) will increase digestibility of wheat straw in the animal and the mould will also provide additional protein to the animal,” says RC Kuhad, professor of microbiology, University of Delhi and general secretary, Association of Microbiologists of India.

Other than agriculture, microbiology has applications in diverse fields, including the environment, medicine, public health, paper, textile, leather and the food and feed industry.

“If you are a BSc or postgraduate, when you compare your job opportunities with that of an MBBS, an MBA or IT engineers, then you may feel you are at a loss.

But if you are a microbiologist trained in a good lab and have developed good skills, then you have good opportunities,” says Kuhad.

Apart from teaching and research, microbiologists can work as food quality officers, pollution controllers, product engineers, food technologists, industrial microbiologists, scientists in pathology labs, patent attorneys, business development managers, and lab technicians. As entrepreneurs, they can develop and manufacture bio-fertilisers, vaccines, microbial enzymes or provide bio-remediation, food and water testing and DNA/protein sequencing services.

Not just that, knowledge of microbiology can even improve the quality of life. After graduation in microbiology, everyone — from a homemaker to an executive — will be better at running a household. For example, generally in Indian homes, bread is bought and might be kept for five-six days. Once you see a black or green spot, or some discolouration, you will know it is infected. Similarly, you can detect fungal growth on vegetables, which the seller might otherwise pass off as something harmless.

Yet microbiologists’ role is not fully appreciated in India. This is partly because it is a relatively young science. Delhi University’s department was set up in 1984.

For food science/food technology UG/PG teaching programmes and in the food industry, “rarely do they appoint a food microbiologist whereas one-third contribution, if not more, should come from the food microbiologist,” says Kuhad.

But he sounds hopeful. Microbiologists, he says, need to popularise and strengthen the discipline. And their association is on course on that count — taking different programmes to various institutions to create awareness about the discipline.

“There is no field of human endeavour, where the microorganism doesn’t play an important role,” says Kuhad, adding, “The discipline of microbiology has been undergoing rapid change and powerful new tools and technologies especially genetic engineering, genomics, proteomics etc promise exciting horizons for man’s continued exploitation of microorganisms.”

What's it about?
Microbiologists study microorganisms — invisible to the naked eye — which are both friends and foes of mankind. They try to understand and find out what they can do to and for human beings, respectively. Microbiology has sub-disciplines such as agricultural, soil, medical, environmental, industrial and food microbiology

Clock Work
The average day of a research scientist at a life sciences company:
10.30 am: Plan lab experiments for the day and discuss them with the group head
11 am: Arrange all lab wares and other requirements for the experiment
11.15 am: Start the experiments 1.30 pm: Literature survey on the internet
3.45 pm: Back to the laboratory
5.30 pm: Analyse result and record data in the office notebook. Also fill out timesheet on the intranet.
6 pm: Wrap up for the day

The Payoff
The starting salary for a UG/PG can be anywhere between Rs15,000 and Rs20,000 a month. However, those with skills may fetch Rs10 lakh to Rs15 lakh a year or even more

Skills
.
Aptitude/fascination for microbes; interest in the world of microbes and what they can do for humans
. Strong analytical and observation skills
. Inclination for lab work
. Willingness to work long hours

How do i get there?
Read science in Class 11 and Class 12. Enroll for a bachelor’s degree in microbiology. Follow it up with an MSc. A PhD is best for enhanced career prospects

Institutes & urls
. University of Delhi
www.du.ac.in
. University of Pune
http://www.unipune.ac.in/dept/science/microbiology/default.htm
. Panjab University, Chandigarh
www.puchd.ac.in
. GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar
http://www.gbpuat.ac.in/acads/pgs/cbshpg.htm

Pros & cons
.

You produce value for society — applications can improve quality of human (and animal) life as well as the environment


.

Relatively new discipline


.

Role of microbiologists not fully appreciated in India


.

Smaller student intake for MSc programmes and relatively limited job options

Patience and perseverance are musts

A young microbiologist talks about her work and more

Tell us something about your work as a research scientist.
As a ‘research scientist’ at Reliance Life Sciences, I am part of the Industrial Biotechnology Group and am engaged in research activities in industrial biotechnology. Our team works on production of different bio-molecules, which are of commercial significance. These are either high volume-low value products or low volume-high value products. We carry out different microbiological studies and perform experiments to get the maximum yields or titres (measure of concentration) of the product of our interest. In other words, we aim to harness the potential of microbes or tame the tiny entities to obtain different bio-molecules with the maximum degree of success.

What’s the scope in this field?
Microbiology is a vast discipline of science. It has many areas of specialisation and is a booming sector with a lot of opportunities. A microbiologist can fit into any field ranging from biopharmaceuticals and medicines, to food and beverages, to textiles and leather, to the environment and crop health. Besides this, one can pursue higher studies such as a PhD programme or post-doctoral studies.

What are the career options for trained microbiologists (MScs and PhDs in microbiology)?
Many microbiologists work in universities, where they teach and carry out research. While some are employed in private research institutions, foundations, health care centres and hospitals, others are in government agencies like Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Department of Science and Technology and Department of Biotechnology.

What are the challenges before microbiologists in India?
In India it could be lack of infrastructural support, inadequate funds and financial backing for running different projects, unavailability of some of the known microbial strains in India, patenting and infringing issues. Also, efforts should be made to make microbiology more applied and inter-disciplinary.

At Reliance Life Sciences, the state-of-the-art infrastructure, talent and support systems give research activities the much-needed boost.

What are the upside and downside of being a microbiologist in the country?

Several government bodies have instituted fast-track projects for young scientists. Women scientists can apply for project grants in the women’s category.

Various awards and laurels have been introduced to recognise the excellent work being done by eminent scientists and young students.

Many national and international scientific conferences are being held throughout the year across the country. One can easily participate in these and take the opportunity to interact with Nobel laureates and eminent scientists of our country as those from abroad.

Two key things are a must in a microbiologist’s kitty patience and perseverance.

Dr Jasmine Isar, senior research scientist, Industrial Biotechnology Division, Reliance Life Sciences (an initiative of the Reliance Group), Navi Mumbai Interviewed by Rahat Bano

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