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Science Careers: Interview with Mary Burtnick

Name: Mary Burtnick
Current employer: Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of South Alabama, Mobile, Alabama
Job title: Assistant Professor
Science Career: Microbiologist
Time working in this field: I have been working in microbiology since I started graduate school in 1997.

How did you become interested in this area of science?

I became interested in microbiology in my second year of undergraduate education. I took an introductory microbiology course that had a laboratory component. I really enjoyed the lab classes. They made me very aware that microorganisms are everywhere and have important roles in numerous facets of our everyday lives.

What did you study in high school, undergraduate, and graduate school?

In high school I took advanced biology, chemistry and physics classes, but enjoyed the biology classes the most. In undergraduate education, I majored in animal biology. I completed graduate school in a Department of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. My area of specialization was bacterial pathogenesis.

How would you describe what you do?

I study how pathogenic bacteria cause diseases. In other words, how do certain bacteria make you sick? Every day is different. A typical day starts between 8 and 9 a.m. and ends between 6 and 8 p.m. I spend my time designing and carrying out experiments, keeping up to date with the current microbiology literature, meeting with colleagues, writing manuscripts and grant applications, as well as participating in teaching microbiology classes.

How would you describe your work environment?

I work in a microbiology research laboratory. I work side by side with my husband, who is also an assistant professor. Within the lab, we have a variety of equipment that is used for working with and growing bacteria, including biosafety hoods, incubators, and microscopes. We routinely work with DNA and proteins as well.

What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?

In order to succeed as a scientific researcher, you need to be focused, dedicated, inquisitive, and enthusiastic about what you are studying. You also need to be creative and learn to think outside the box.

What do you enjoy most about your work? Is there anything that you do not like?

I enjoy working at the lab bench, performing experiments, especially when an experiment results in new or unexpected data; this can be really exciting at times and can make us think about a problem or a question in different ways. I also really enjoy the collaborative nature of research; by working together with other scientists, we can use our combined expertise to solve problems. Sometimes when experiments aren't working, advice from a colleague or coworker can help you look at the problem from a completely different angle. An additional benefit of my job is that I have had the opportunity to attend national and international conferences to present my work. I have been able to travel to several cities within the U.S. and Canada, and have even attended conferences in Thailand and Australia.

The least exciting part of my job is paperwork. When you are working with biohazardous agents, there is a fair bit of regulatory paperwork that goes along with them, but that is just part of the job.

Describe a project that you have worked on that was of particular interest to you.

We are currently working on a very interesting project focusing on a recently described bacterial secretion system. Bacteria are thought to utilize this secretion system to inject specific molecules into host cells. We don't know yet exactly how this system functions, but we have many experiments planned to try to figure it out. This is of particular interest to me because it is a relatively new area of study and there are many unanswered questions.

What can a student do now to prepare for a career in your field in terms of coursework and extracurricular activities?

A student interested in microbiology should take biology and chemistry classes in high school. I would also encourage high school students to take advantage of any opportunities to work in research labs that might be available, either in academia or in the private sector. In terms of extracurricular activities, I would recommend participation in science fairs during both grade school and high school.

Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in this field that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

I would advise students to develop interests outside of work/science. I would suggest participating in sports or other activities/hobbies, as these can be valuable ways to relax when things get stressful at work.

Is there anything about your profession that you think people misunderstand, or anything you think people would be surprised to learn about your job?

I don't think people realize that running your own lab is like running your own small business—you need to be a good manager, have good people/communication skills, and know how to manage budgets and timelines.

Did you ever participate in science fairs as a student?

I did participate in science fairs when I was in elementary school. I remember one project that I did was looking at how starfish regenerated their legs if they lost one. This was more of an observation-type project than an actual experiment though. More recently, I have been a judge for different science fairs—mostly for middle school (grades 6-8). It is mainly because of this that I would recommend participation in science fairs. As a judge, you can really see the creative sides of some students and the critical-thinking skills of others.

Free science fair projects.