“Our studies help the environment and make sure infections can be treated with antibiotics in the future as well”

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, from clinical research to saving the environment. It's flexible, varied and research-oriented, say three former students, Alma, Minna and Victor.

Alma Seppälä is a former master's student, currently working as an R&D Scientist at antibiotic resistance monitoring start-up. Minna Maunula currently works as an R&D Scientist at a medical technology company. Victor Gonzalez Ramos, hailing from Mexico City, Mexico, is completing a PhD.  

Why did you choose to study in this programme?

Victor: I initially studied mechanical engineering for my bachelor's in Mexico. I stumbled on a biotechnology lab through a friend, and I thought it was so much fun, so I changed to biotech. After completing my bachelor's degree in biotechnical engineering, I took the corporate path and started working for an international brewing company. At the time, I didn't even think about further studies. One night, I was having dinner with a former professor, and they suggested I explore the options for a master's degree. Long story short, I applied to the University of Helsinki and applied for a scholarship. I got both, the scholarship and the study place. So, I left my job in the corporate world and moved to Finland. 

Alma: After upper secondary school, I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I'd always liked biology, so I thought microbiology would be interesting. In my bachelor studies, I took a microbiology course about infectious diseases and became even more interested in virology and clinical microbiology. Microbiology is a versatile field that gives many options which was one reason supporting my choice of study.

Minna: I knew I was interested in biology. I applied to a programme where I had to study biology and chemistry, but I realised that microbiology was the most interesting topic for me. I talked about that to my sister, and she knew that there was a bachelor’s programme here that would match my interests. That is how I ended up here. After completing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Helsinki, choosing to study in the MMB programme was an easy and natural option. 

What was it like to study in the MMB programme? 

Minna: I loved the programme! The group in the programme was small enough to get to know the other students. It was easy to find friends. The courses were well-organised, and I liked that there were no mass lectures. There were a lot of laboratory courses on offer, which I liked because it’s valuable to get practical experience. Instead of lectures, we had also small seminar courses where, for instance, students led the class.

Alma: We had different kinds of courses, and many seminars, like Minna described. There were some lectures with final exams, but they were rare. Instead, we had a lot of group work, presentations and lab courses. I chose many lab courses as I liked them, but you can choose not to have a heavy emphasis on lab work. 

Victor: Two points made it super interesting for me. The degree had a high requirement of practical credits, which I really liked. The second reason was that I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to study. This programme has many sub-modules you can choose from, so it's easy to try some stuff and see what you like. There is a lot of freedom in the master's degree studies. You can freely decide when you work – except for lab courses where you need a teacher present. There are also a lot of opportunities for projects outside of the University. There is also a helpful tutor system. When you arrive at the University, you are provided with an introduction to how the University works, where you can find things, and so on. Two days are spent on the master's degree programme-specific issues and meeting the professors. You get help booking the classes, and the tutor is there to help you with all the practical matters. 

What kind of programme-related work experiences have you had

Alma: I started working part-time at a laboratory with the testing samples after completing my master's thesis. Between my bachelor's and master's studies, I interned at the university for a research group. I later completed my master's thesis for the project as well. Currently, I work at a start-up that centres on antibiotic resistance. It was a familiar place as I'd worked as a lab assistant there. I've been employed here full-time for about a year now. My job is to ensure we complete and deliver what we've promised to our customers.

Victor: I got a scholarship for my studies from the University of Helsinki and another scholarship from the government of Mexico. I'd been working all through my bachelor's studies, so I wanted to be able to just study, so I didn't apply for summer jobs or internships. But I completed my master's degree at VTT, and I took an advanced project course which basically was equal to working as a research assistant, except for pay, you get study credits. I found that course very useful. Now I'm doing my PhD. I've always been fascinated by fungi. It's a severely understudied field, and their role in the environment is stunning. My PhD study is on the regulatory networks in fungi. 

Minna: I started as an intern in the department's research group. I'd been offered a well-paying summer job but decided to take the internship, and I am so happy I chose that. The internship led to many good things and taught me so much. I continued as a research assistant during my studies and a bit after graduation. My first job outside of the university was at laboratory. Then I applied to work as an R&D Scientist, where I am today. 

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

Victor: I've always been very passionate about the environment, and it was already thought in my mind during my bachelor's level studies. I don't want to destroy the planet, and I want my work to be a part of that effort. 

Minna: Absolutely not. And my interests varied during my studies as well. First, I was interested in food sciences, then environmental microbiology and ended up in clinical microbiology. 

Alma: Absolutely not for me, either. I'm still not sure about where I want to go in my career. I'm a person who wanders and ends up in interesting places. At one point, I was interested in clinical microbiology. After working at a Covid lab, I had a change of heart. Even without a clear plan, you can end up in interesting places, as I have. 

Who is the programme and career opportunities suited for?

Victor: For many kinds of people, from research to those who want a corporate career. The main advantage of this program is that you can try out so many different fields, which are extensive. There are research groups in all these fields, and you can easily get involved. There are a lot of electives, business courses, and an entrepreneurship course, and you get access to, for example, biotech companies. 

Minna: If microbiology interests or motivates you, the programme suits you. Since there is a lot of freedom, you can build your degree according to your strengths.

Alma: You need to be pedantic if you want to work in a lab. Or at least be pedantic at work; free time can be different. It also helps if you can get along with people because this programme has a lot of collaborative elements. It's good because you also need those people skills in working life. 

Have you experienced any surprises when moving from student life to work life? 

Victor: For some people, the answer would be free time. It's true to some extent, but when you work in research, it is sometimes hard escape thinking about work during off-hours either. So much has stayed the same for me. 

Minna: It's gratifying to notice how much you know and have skills that can be used in real life. The stability that a regular salary provides feels nice. I'm happy I scored a permanent job contract so quickly out of my studies. My degree also gives me a lot of career flexibility. This degree enables you to apply your skills in many fields, from microbiology to molecular biology to biotechnology and clinical studies – it's great to see how many options you have.

Alma: The best part is having the weekends to myself. During my studies, I was actively involved in student organisations, and if that didn't keep me busy, I would study. Now I really enjoy that I can focus on recovery over the weekend.

What parts of your studies and student life have helped you the most in your career

Minna: Having an open mind and getting to know your classmates. That's the easiest way of making networks. For instance, we organised a seminar on antibiotic resistance that we got an idea for in one of the start-up courses. Two years later, we decided it would be easier to organise the event through some organisation. Now we have organised this evening on antibiotic resistance under One Health Finland Ry for three years. In studies, the most helpful courses were the lab courses because it was taking theory and seeing it in practice.

Victor: This one advanced project course gave me a lot of tools and techniques for research as well as a network for the PhD and a master's thesis. The professors here are super approachable, and there's always an open door. It's terrific to have that support and help from people who have such a long experience in the field. I attended international student organisations at a later point, which help stay active and deal with the Finnish winter.

Alma: Networks have been helpful. I found out about my current job from a friend of mine. I am also active in One Health Finland, which helps build professional networks. For the studies, it's hard to name one single course. But I appreciated the master's thesis. The emphasis is on practical research and writing the report. It has helped me understand how research works, and I had to find out things on my own, find information and be critical about the things you read.

Victor, why did you choose to stay and work in Finland after graduation?

Victor: I learned to love Finland. I was contacted by a professor who asked if I'd be interested in a PhD in an ongoing project. I was, and now I am, doing my PhD. I'm starting an intensive course in Swedish, the other native language in Finland, to be able to apply for citizenship. I will reach the five years requirement soon, and I want to pass the required language test. I intend to study also Finnish at some point because I see myself here for the foreseeable future.

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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.