“The Ageing Microbiologist”

“Predicted self-portrait in 2050.”

At the age of 44, I like to think I am not old. But I am not young either…

In my last year at primary school, the first school computer arrived, a “BBC Micro”, and it was trundled from classroom to classroom on a trolley.

Whilst at medical school in the early 1990s, email was very much a novelty, and we used to email jokes to each other in the university library. There was even a few people that had (very large) mobile phones.

I gave my first powerpoint presentation in the year 2000. Sadly it wasn’t the last…

Whilst training in clinical microbiology in the early 2000s, all the culture work-up was written on the back of the request form. The average turnaround time for a sample was still about 3 days. “APIs” were all the rage. MALDI-TOF for organism identifcation didn’t even exist. Molecular diagnostics was highly specialised and painstakingly slow. And if you had mentioned bacteriology automation, you would have been laughed out of the laboratory!

Change in the practice of microbiology is difficult to perceive from month to month, even year on year. But over a generation, and particularly the last one, it has changed out of all recognition.

Even though I am ageing, I still feel quite young. I try to observe younger microbiology scientists and clinical microbiologists and then think to myself. What do they know that I don’t? How can I upgrade my skills to match someone half my age!

The knowledge and skills that were essential for me 20 years ago are only partially useful to me today. I have had to “re-invent myself” and acquire lots of new skills; Real-time PCR, pivot tables, middleware, website development, just for starters. I have had to learn about new assays that didn’t even exist when I first qualified as a microbiologist… And I have also forgotten a lot of the old stuff.

That’s ok.

But age does have one big advantage.


The ability to spot the unusual, to recognise patterns, to (sub-conciously) know when to follow up on a result and when it can be left alone. All these things are painstakingly learnt over time, and by learning from your previous mistakes and failures.

The combination of experience and re-invention can be a potent one.

It is easy for the ageing microbiologist to look back at how things used to be. But it is even more important to look forward and try to predict how things are going to be in the future.


Are you an ageing microbiologist? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments!

2 thoughts on ““The Ageing Microbiologist”

  1. Hey, my clinical micro career started in 1971. This was even before the API system was available. We used individual tubed substrate media for identification such as TSI, SIM citrate, urea, amino acids, MR-VP, etc. We had racks of tubes to read every morning and then we’d match the reactions to an organism from charts. With experience we learned the biochemical reactions of the most common bugs without looking at the charts. Also, the colonial morphology on various agar media helped with the identification as did the antimicrobial susceptibilty pattern. To identify a bug that didn’t fit an id using the basic biochemical workup, you had to go back to the charts and run additional biochemical tests. Sometimes only the bug knew what it’s identity was. Although very labor intense, it was challenging and we felt like detectives.
    With yeast identifications, we used biochemical fermentation and assimilation tests and it was an absolute must to include a corn meal agar plate for microscopic morphology. It was an art in those days.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *