The first students to graduate with Virginia Tech’s new bachelor’s degree in microbiology, which was approved last year, say that their career paths are more in focus now.

The degree provides specialized training for students entering the workforce or post-undergraduate studies. Microbiology, which involves looking at the structure, function, and uses of microscopic organisms, or microbes, was previously only offered as a concentration option in the department of biological sciences in the College of Science.

"Many employers specifically ask for a degree in microbiology in employment ads, as they do not fully understand the significance of a concentration option," said Ann Stevens, a professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate.  "The new degree promotes and enhances university-industry collaboration."

Microbiologists may find jobs in food production, environment, energy, and human health. Thirteen students will graduate with the microbiology degree this week. They will be pursuing graduate studies, health profession studies (clinical laboratory science, medical, pharmacy, or veterinary schools), or directly entering industrial or government research laboratories with the training the degree has provided.

Brittany Blankenship of Roanoke, Virginia, will pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of California, Davis this fall. She said that the hands-on experiences she received as part of the first degree cohort helped her to realize her love for microbiology.

"Microbes are like complex little people," Blankenship said. "It’s fascinating that they can be in any sort of environment and sense the need for nutrients and respond."

Specifically, Blankenship is interested in how a microbe regulates genes in a high versus low nutrient environment. 

Tony Lopez of Dumfries, Virginia, will serve in the United States Army after graduation but said that he plans to pursue a master’s degree in microbiology after completing his service.

"As a kid, I was always interested in how diseases work," Lopez said. "When I learned about the new degree, I knew I had to sign up."

Lauren Page of Oakton, Virginia, will attend the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine this fall. She said that the epidemiology and parasitology classes that are part of the 120-credit degree program were most beneficial to her.

"Bacterial, food-borne, and water-borne disease are interesting to me," Page said. "The lab experience I received with the microbiology degree has been great prep for vet school."

Human health issues such as re-emerging diseases (whooping cough and measles) and newly emerging infectious agents (Ebola virus), as well as demand for renewable resources to create global sustainability (microbial fuel cells to food production), have recently put the field of microbiology in the spotlight.

The new microbiology degree helps to advance Virginia Tech’s public land-grant mission of serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world.

"The importance of training in microbiology is reflected directly in the role of microbes in virtually all areas of human experience," said David Popham, a professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate. "To put it simply, microbes are present and active in every environment we deal with, from forests, lakes, and farms to the relative ‘sterility’ of a hospital ward and the complex microbiome that is within our own intestinal tract.  Our understanding of microbes contributes to almost all fields of scientific and technological endeavor."

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