"I want people to know more about the sustainable use of natural resources and environmental degradation"

Microbes are the processors of life and the environment. That's why the Master's Programme in Microbiology and Microbial Biotechnology (MMB) offers many career paths, more connected to the degree programme, some wildly different.

We talked to two alumni, Iris Heinonen, an Entrepreneur and Expansion Specialist, at Gubbe, and Renata Majamäki, a PhD student at GTK, the Geological Survey of Finland.

What was it like to study in the MMB programme?

Renata: Flexible, above all. By this I mean that you can choose your courses and studies quite freely. There is a range of study methods in use, and you can choose them to your liking and explore the right study track. I liked the practical courses, even though now I am on the academic path. I got the most out of lab courses and highly recommend them to everyone.

Iris: The master's programme is very flexible, which I liked. I tailored my degree and picked courses I found most interesting, and only then looked at which track I could collate them under. It turned out to be Environmental Microbiology, so that became my study track. I love that no one told me to go by the book. Many of the courses are lectures, but the courses themselves are smaller than during the bachelor's studies, so they felt more intimate, like classes more than lectures. It was great to have international students, both exchange students and degree students, in the classes. I was always interested to hear views from another country and context.

What kind of programme-related work experiences have you had?

Renata: During my studies, I worked part-time at MeropoliLab, a water, food and environmental laboratory that provides a wide range of laboratory services to companies, institutions and communities, municipal and state authorities, and private individuals. It was a very convenient location, close to the Viikki Campus, just across the street. I also interned at the university research group. Currently, I work at GTK, the Geological Survey of Finland. My PhD is on the recovery and sustainable use of Baltic Sea ferromanganese concretions as a source of hi-tech metals. My research is funded by a foundation that supports the study of sustainable use of natural resources.

Iris: I actually haven't worked in this field at all yet! But it has been my choice. I've always known I want to be an entrepreneur. I have a mindset of a person who likes to question everything, and as an entrepreneur, I am freer to do that. I work as a freelancer, too, right now, allowing me the freedom to do things my way. In addition, I run a company that sells unisex boxers and work as a freelancer for Gubbe. I'm helping them expand their business to Denmark, the UK and Sweden.

Did you know from the beginning what you wanted to do after graduation?

Renata: It wasn't an obvious choice for me; I rather found my way just trying different things. During my master's studies, I discovered that there is so much to research in environmental microbiology. I'm interested in climate change and environmental degradation. A PhD wasn't a clear choice, either. I considered applying for a job outside the University. However, while doing my master's thesis, I realised that I enjoy research and that a research career is the right path for me. My thesis was on the wintertime activity of denitrifiers and the production of nitrous oxide in Finnish subarctic tundra soils.

Iris: I absolutely did not have a clear career path! I only knew that I was interested in natural sciences. After upper secondary school, I needed to figure out what to study. I ended up with molecular biosciences. I'd always wanted to study Italian too, so I took language courses at the university language centre. It had an impact on my studies too. I did my bachelor's thesis on the farming of black truffles. With this topic, I could combine my original passion for food with my newfound passion for Italy. Inspired by the topic, I thought microbiology would be a good option for a master's, and I could study fungi. Thus, I continued to the MMB programme.

Who is the programme and career opportunities suited for?

Iris: The programme offers a lot to many people, and the study environment is pleasant. The programme professors are fantastic, and there is a lot of room to explore and find your own path. It's an easy path if you want to end up in research or academia. Still, the degree also is a good fit for sales and marketing positions in companies working on microbiology applications.

Renata: This programme is for anyone interested in microbes. You can succeed here with different backgrounds and skills because you can direct your studies according to your interests. This programme is a good choice if you want to do microbiological research and find your way into the academic world. But at the same time, you don't need to know what you want to do. It's a well-rounded degree that enables career paths ranging from the private sector to research.

How has the transition from student life to working life been?

Iris: I learned that I'm better at working than studying. A master's degree gives you many valuable skills, from doing background research to critical analysis skills. These skills are helpful in any career.

Renata: I was surprised that the PhD studies resemble so little studying. I mean that you no longer feel like you're in school but are a researcher among other researchers. There are some lectures, but not many. For me, this was a positive change.

Which part of your studies and student life have helped you the most in your career?

Iris: I really enjoyed a course where we studied the applications of biotechnology and entrepreneurship. There are a lot of opportunities for innovative product development in microbiology. Other students have been important networks later on. If I want to later move on to an international career, these networks will come in useful.

Renata: There are three courses that I found extremely useful for my studies: Exploratory Microbial Research and Environmental Microbiology lab courses, and a course called Advanced Environmental Microbiology project in a research group which is basically an internship that you do at the University. I continued my master's thesis in the research group. My master's thesis was decisive for my career. I enjoyed doing the research and ended up continuing my studies. Having networks and friends outside of the university was very important too.

Do you have any special plans for the future?

Iris: Right now, I'm in a place in my life where I want to work a lot. I'm trying out different ideas as an entrepreneur and have a third company in the works. I've also thought about consulting. I would love to share my knowledge and know-how on branding and marketing and consult companies that work in biotechnology and the environment. It would also be interesting to work for a microbiology start-up.

Renata: My first goal is to finish my PhD. I hope to continue after that somewhere and keep on researching. A post-doc position would be interesting. As a researcher, I want to raise awareness about the sustainable use of natural resources and environmental degradation. Additionally, I want to bring about more information on the state of the Baltic Sea. There's a lot of talk about the Baltic Sea and how it's not in a very good place environmentally, but there is still a lot to work with. Finland is not the only country whose activities impact the Baltic Sea.

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Master's Programme in Microbiology and Microbial Biotechnology

How to solve fundamental environmental problems? How is knowledge of microbiology applied in medicine and industry, or in food production? What research techniques are used to study viruses, bacteria and other microbes?

In the Master's Programme in Microbiology and Microbial Biotechnology (MMB), you find answers to these and many other important questions. You learn about the global significance of microbes as processors of life and the environment. You will gain the potential and the tools for the development of new innovations in microbial biotechnological applications.