I feel passionate about using microbes to solve environmental challenges

Student-oriented, versatile and with a strong focus on industry - we talked to a student and a teacher about studying in the Master’s Programme in Microbiology and Microbial Biotechnology (MMB) and how the field can help with creating solutions out of problems.

Eric Schaedig is a Master’s degree student from Colorado, United States, who followed his passion for environmental microbiology to the University of Helsinki. Sarah Butcher is a professor of microbiology, who specialises in pathogens. She teaches in the MMB programme.

Who is the Master’s Programme in Microbiology and Microbial Biotechnology for?

Sarah Butcher: “In the programme, we are interested in people with diverse backgrounds. You could be interested in ecology, disease, or biotechnological applications, for example. We want to encourage cultural exchange, and are looking for motivated people from all around the world.”

Eric Schaedig: “I think the programme is great for someone who is very passionate about microbiology, but doesn’t know exactly what they want to do yet. The programme has so much freedom. It allows you to explore your options.

I was very interested in environmental microbiology. I wasn’t absolutely certain though if I wanted to pursue it, because at my last university in the United States you couldn’t really study it at all. That’s why I applied to the MMB programme at the University of Helsinki. It provided the opportunity to try out environmental microbiology without being forced to stick to it, if I didn’t like it. The programme is quite exceptional in that sense.”

What is it like to study in the Master’s Programme in Microbiology and Microbial Biotechnology?

Butcher: “The teaching methods vary a lot. For example, we have seminar courses, where students get to discuss topics and do presentations for each other. This is an effective way to learn. Sometimes I even bring local school kids to class. The students have to present their topics to the kids in a way that is simple enough for them to understand! It’s a lot of fun, and teaches the students how to talk about science in a way that is accessible to everyone.”

Schaedig: “The MMB programme also provides a lot of opportunities to do lab training. Most people take an introductory course where you learn all the common techniques in microbiology. It means that when you begin your thesis, and your working life, you have all the most essential skills across the board nailed down.

However, you can also do an advanced laboratory project. You find a research lab anywhere you want and work with them. It’s a great way to find out what you’re really interested in – or not. I was in a clinical microbiology lab, and realised that pathogens are really not my thing!”

What are the strengths of the programme?

Butcher: “First of all, the programme has great flexibility. It allows students to make their degrees unique. Only half of the study credits in your degree need to be courses in microbiology and microbial biotechnology. The rest could be anything that helps you tailor your degree to your specific interests.

There is also the opportunity to gain work experience in research labs, and lots of industry collaboration. This can open new avenues in the field in Finland and abroad. The teachers in the programme have diverse backgrounds in the field of microbiology, and we are committed to work for the students. MMB is a very student-oriented programme, and there is no top-down teaching.”

Schaedig: “I applied to the MMB programme at the University of Helsinki because of the great environmental microbiology programme. It is globally quite rare. You can use microbes to solve the environmental challenges that we face, which is something I am really passionate about. The University of Helsinki offers a lot of opportunities in that area.

One of the most interesting courses I’ve taken was on advanced environmental biotechnology. We learned how to create valuable compounds, such as biodegradable plastic, out of waste. It also taught a lot about helping polluted environments with biotechnology – you can, for example, remediate oil spills with microbes!”

The MMB programme is very versatile. There is a strong focus on industry collaboration and the practical side of science. I took a course last year on entrepreneurship in the biotech sector, where we got to visit companies and learn from them. It was really valuable.”

What kind of career opportunities does the programme open?

Butcher: “Microbiology offers a lot of different opportunities. You could be a university researcher, but also work in hospitals, teaching, or scientific journalism, for example. It is also an area where there are a lot of practical places to go to work in industry, such as research positions in the labs of different companies. Food industry especially employs a lot of people, for instance, to check the quality of food, and to develop new plant-based food products.”

Schaedig: “There definitely are a lot of options. After graduation, I’m interested in continuing to be a researcher, but I’m also looking into science advising positions with government bodies.

At the moment, I am beginning my thesis research on cyanobacteria. They form toxic blooms in the Baltic Sea, and cause a lot of environmental and health problems. Cyanobacteria are like humans in the sense that they, too, can be harmed by UV radiation. I am looking into how these cyanobacteria survive harsh radiation during these blooms by producing their own sunscreens.

The idea is that it might be economically feasible to go out into the Baltic Sea, skim the cyanobacteria off the water, extract the sunscreen and use that in cosmetics. It probably wouldn’t bleach coral like traditional synthetic sunscreens, and would potentially be safer for people to use. It would create a solution out of a problem.”

What is it like to study and live in Helsinki?

Schaedig: “At first, I was surprised by a lot of things. For example, you don’t have to address your teachers by their titles. During orientation week, we sat down and had coffee with all of the professors. That was really nice, but really unexpected to me at the same time. You are treated more as a peer than as a student: instead of being told to sit down and listen, you can have real scientific discussions with your teachers.

There is a very balanced work-life culture in Finland. In my free time, I like to watch indie films at the Orion movie theatre, and to hang out with my friends from the MMB programme. We are a very close-knit community. I also visit the local cafés a lot. I used to be a barista, and was very excited to hear that Finnish people are the biggest coffee drinkers in the world!

I think that in Finland, students are valued as assets. There are many scholarships and grants available, and students are given countless opportunities to study whatever interests them, both in Finland and abroad. It is up to the student to pursue these opportunities and tailor the degree toward their needs and ambitions."