Microbiology Today May 2001

Microbiological issues are always in the headlines. Whether it is a food scare, the latest outbreak of an infectious disease or a pollution problem, people are always hearing about micro-organisms. But do they really understand what these microscopic life forms are and their important role in the ecosystems of Earth? The public needs to be educated about microbiology and where best to start but at school? However, someone has to teach the teachers, and research and development is necessary so that we can control harmful micro-organisms or exploit beneficial ones for our good. Higher education institutions fulfil this remit. This issue of Microbiology Today looks at microbiology education in its broadest sense and at all levels.

Liz Sockett, of Nottingham University, is the SGM's Education Officer. She emphasizes that microbiology education is a lifelong process, and that even the professionals never stop learning about their subject.

Microbiologists have to learn other skills alongside their science. Alan Cann, winner of the SGM Peter Wildy Prize for Microbiology Education, who has an excellent track record in using the web as a teaching aid, describes which 'key skills' are relevant to microbiology students. One particular skill is often lacking in science students - the ability to do fairly basic maths. Adrian Eley (University of Sheffield) and Ron Bishop (University of Ulster) cover some of the problems and explore strategies for overcoming these.

Liz Sockett takes a look at the content of microbiology degrees in the UK and discovers that a wide variety of topics are available to the keen student. But who is actually studying microbiology at university these days? Recruitment figures to first degrees are holding up quite well, despite the competition from more fashionable subjects such as media studies which have soaring uptake numbers.

What's happening at postgraduate level? How well are the students fairing as they carry out research projects for their PhDs? Much depends on the relationship they have with their supervisor, as Adrian Eley (University of Sheffield) explains. He believes that training of PhD supervisors is particularly important.

Schoolchildren and the general public can learn about microbiology and related subjects in the exciting ways presented by the new science centres bankrolled by the Millennium Fund. Leigh Fish currently works at the Glasgow Science Centre, but he was formerly employed at At-Bristol and so is well qualified to describe the facilities on offer.

Studying microbiology overseas has pros and cons. Here two microbiologists describe their experiences, one an undergraduate who spent a year in France, and the other a postdoctoral scientist currently working in California. Martin Collins (Queen's University of Belfast) doesn't study abroad - but he goes to Mexico each year to impart his knowledge to students there.

What resources are available to help those either teaching or learning about microbiology? A range of websites, videos and other media for all age ranges is described in a series of short articles by experts.

In schools in England and Wales science education is in a period of change, particularly for those studying at post-16. Dariel Burdass of the SGM Education Office describes the new Curriculum 2000, which aims to broaden the range of subjects covered by this age group, and its impact in schools. In Scotland the system is different and Ian Sutherland (University of Edinburgh) describes the biotechnology summer school for teachers he helps to run each year. A summary of SGM activities to promote microbiology education and careers shows the importance of these matters to the Society.

SGM offers small grants to members to enable them to develop teaching resources. Here past recipients describe their projects. These include a teacher's guide to studying the virulence factors of Candida albicans, a multimedia courseware unit on prokaryotic diversity, a microbial case-based CAL package for nursing students, a Powerpoint presentation of microbes in everyday life and a computer simulation of the dynamics of microbial populations.

Foot-and-mouth disease has dominated the media over the past few months and has affected many people's lives. SGM staff summarize the progress of the recent UK outbreak and ponder on the lessons that can be learnt for the future.

Recently a letter has been circulating urging life scientists to boycott journals, as authors, referees or editors, which do not allow free on-line access to full text papers from 6 months after publication and do not deposit all content in public repositories such as PubMed Central. As a publisher of learned journals, SGM has a stake in the outcome of this initiative. The Council's statement of policy is provided here.

Hot off the Press [Acrobat PDF] highlights some new developments in microbiological research published in the Society's journals - Microbiology, Journal of General Virology and International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. Topics covered include:
  • A global view of FMD - an analysis of the virus serotypes found in the current UK outbreak
  • FMD in pigs - research into methods of detecting the disease in apparently healthy animals
  • Minimalist microbes - the proteins associated with the structure of Mycoplasma pneumoniae
  • 'FreeTree' taxonomy program - software used to classify trichomonads
  • Order! Order! - implications of alternative classifications and horizontal gene transfer for bacterial taxonomy
  • Surviving acid attack - understanding how E. coli withstands stomach acid
  • Watching evolution - studying the adaptation of bacteria to their environmen

Other items include:

  • Women in science [Acrobat PDF] - the ATHENA project, a career profile and a new magazine
  • Gradline [Acrobat PDF] - SOAPBOX letters
  • Comment [Acrobat PDF] - the state of microbiology education today

Last updated 10 December 2003