Humans are full of bacteria. Each of us hosts roughly the same number of bacterial cells as human cells—and that’s a good thing.
Microbes and humans have co-evolved over millennia to help each other. We give them a place to live and food to eat and, in return, they work hard on our behalf. Bacteria on our skin, for example, form a protective coating that fights off germs that can make us sick. “Good” bacteria in the gut help digest food, releasing the energy and nutrients we need, and crowd out “bad” bacteria that can trigger disease.
Welcome to the world of the human microbiome—the micro-organisms that live in and on our bodies. It is a world that has been making headlines of late with research showing it can affect not only our physical health, but our mental well-being and even our behaviour. This is spurring interest in programs and careers studying how the microbiome works and how to make it work better for us. “There was a period of time when the microbiome was less interesting to students, but now it’s become really popular. The convergence of disciplines is really exciting,” says Christine Szymanski, president of the Canadian Society of Microbiologists and a microbiology professor at the University of Alberta.
There are myriad routes into the field—university and college programs in microbiology, biology, food science, nutrition, biochemistry, computer science, immunology and physiology, to name just a few.
Josh Neufeld, a professor in the biology department at the University of Waterloo, has hired students across disciplines to work in his microbiology lab. Under his supervision, they’ve delved into the workings of the skin microbiome, and the links between gut microbes and depression and irritable bowel syndrome. “You can be trained in a completely different area and still work with the human microbiome,” he says. “One of the stars in my lab was a math major in computational biology who used his computational expertise to analyze data sets.”
Neufeld is referring to Mike Hall, who started his Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies at Dalhousie University this fall. Hall is developing methods for sorting micro-organisms so he can analyze them in ways that help us understand their relationship to our health. While he’s not sure what kind of job he should aim for, he says his skill set means contract research work has been easy to come by. “As soon as people hear I can analyze data sets, I’m everybody’s best friend,” he says. “We are getting so much data out of the microbiome that we don’t have enough people to analyze it.”
Jennifer Stearns is another of Neufeld’s star student researchers. During her Ph.D. at the University of Waterloo, she studied soil bacteria that take up residence in plant roots and how these bacteria help their hosts overcome stress such as drought or heavy-metal contamination. But after getting her degree, Stearns spent five years working as a post-doctorate researcher in labs at Waterloo and McMaster to make the transition to the human microbiome.
Now an assistant professor in the department of medicine at McMaster University, she studies the infant microbiome and how its composition can set a foundation for future health. “There is such an interesting diversity in the human microbiome. I’m really interested in . . . what drives that complexity,” she says. “It has a big impact on our health and is an intimate part of our development.”
Stearns’s career—tenure-track research faculty—is a common one in the field, says Szymanski. Other options include research scientist with a food or pharmaceutical company working to establish relationships among human microbes, diseases and their treatments. The French multinational company Danone, for example, employs researchers who try to work out the most healthful mix of microbes to put in its yogourt.
Microbiome work could also include clinical research in hospitals aimed at combating infectious disease, or government-based research designed to keep food free of harmful microbes.
While most careers working with the human microbiome require a university degree, college graduates can also land jobs in the field. For example, Centennial College in Toronto and Algonquin College in Ottawa offer biotechnology programs, while St. Clair College in Windsor, Ont., offers one in medical laboratory science and Holland College in Charlottetown offers a bioscience technology program.
Graduates can work as medical technologists, research assistants, quality-control technicians and laboratory technicians in hospitals, public and private medical labs, and in clinical research and pharmaceutical laboratories. Diplomas can also be a launching pad for work in medical sales or technical assistance.
The salary range is wide, because it depends on whether a grad has a diploma or degree, their level of education and whether they work for the government or a private company. Nevertheless, Neufeld is excited to see the huge interest in microbes. “But it’s really just a gateway drug for studying and understanding the incredible diversity of life on the planet,” he says.