Learning Microbiology

Nicholas Landau nlandau at eden.rutgers.edu
Tue Sep 3 15:17:15 EST 1996

"Yersinia," whose field is mathematics, made the point that any discipline
can be self-taught, including microbiology.  It should be pointed out
that there is a *very*fundamental difference between math and microbiology
which will change the approach one take to learning micro.

Unlike math, micro is an experimental science.  As such, a large number
of manual skills and practical techniques must be learned to perform
effectively.  In this way, micro is more like carpentry or plumbing than
it is like philosophy or mathematics.  One rarely hears of amatuer microbiologists for this reason, while amatuer mathematicians and philosophers are
quite common.

You can read about techniques in micro.  However, you will waste a terribly
alrge amount of time figuring out the unwritten tricks to get them to
work under various conditions.  Experiments will give unexpected results,
and you will not know the reason.  Unlike math, you cannot start will a
purely theoretical understanding of the subject and proceed from there.

Books are terrific for two things: step-by-step instructions for well
established and specific methods, and describing the conceptual and
theoretical state of a scholarly field.  There are aspects of microbiology
which do not fit into either category, however.  In this way, micro
is something of a craft.

As this is the case, a teacher is really indispensible.  Even without
a mentor of some kind, a well-equipped laboratory is an absolute must.
Unless you have about $60 thousand to blow, you are going to need to
find an established scientist to take you under her wing in any case.

Save yourself a great deal of time and frustration: find an experienced
microbiologist (not a Ph.D., per se, but experienced) to teach you the

Nick Landau
Dept. Biochemistry and Microbiology
Rutgers University

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