Virus Hunter: A career as a virologist

Virologist testing specimens in the laboratory

As COVID-19 continues its grip on the world, the need for a vaccine to defeat the virus is urgent. Developing a vaccine or a treatment is a painstakingly slow and detailed endeavour. Finding a compound that works, testing it in animals, and then rolling it out to clinical trials in humans can take years. But this pandemic is pushing the researchers, better known as virologists, to work around the clock and develop a vaccine as soon as possible.

What’s this career about?

Much is still misunderstood or unknown about the Corona virus which has brought regions of the globe to a standstill and placed a huge pressure on the global economy. It resembles other known epidemics, and is highly infectious.

Virologists battle some of the worst diseases on earth. They are medical professionals who seek to understand viruses such as Corona virus, Zika, Ebola, AIDS and polio. Viruses have many routes of infection, ranging from human behaviours through to insect bites.

As a virologist, they’ll be expected to learn about how viruses spread, how to isolate them, and how to diagnose, treat and prevent infections. They are also responsible for investigating the pharmacological response of viruses to antiviral drugs and the evolution of drug resistance.

These ‘disease detectives’ spend most of their time in microbiology or virology laboratories with powerful microscopes. They study the microscopic organisms or viruses that cause these and other diseases in hopes of finding vaccines. Increasingly, they team up with researchers and experts from other fields. From time to time, the work involves dangerous organisms for special precautions must be taken including the wearing of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).

When there is a viral outbreak on a ward, virologists work together with the hospital’s infection control team, advising staff on the ward on the extent of transmission and how to limit further infection.

Dr Gita Ramjee speaking
Dr Gita Ramjee

Virologists typically work in research or teaching, and many split their time between these two activities. They may also work as science writers or pursue additional training to work in the pharmaceutical business or law.

At this critical time, the world needs these virus fighters the likes of Gita Ramjee. Ramjee, recognized as a world-class virologist, spent her life focused on studies and drug trials, hoping to overcome not only HIV but also cultural barriers to stopping its spread. Working in South Africa, she was acknowledged internationally for her expertise in the field of microbicide research. She died recently from complications relating to COVID-19.

How do I get there?

Virology is a subdivision of Biology, so, you need to have Biology, Chemistry, and Physics in 10+2. Then go for graduation in Microbiology, Biomedical Sciences or Biotechnology. One can even go for MBBS. This field requires at least a master’s degree in Microbiology, Medical Microbiology, Immunology or Virology. Master’s level programmes include coursework, lab study and research.

While a master’s degree is adequate for jobs in management, sales, inspection, service, and some jobs in applied research, a doctorate degree in Microbiology (specializing in Infectious Diseases) is needed for independent research and for advancement to administrative positions.

What key skills do I need?

  • An inquisitive nature and a concern for accuracy.
  • Strong analytical skills.
  • Keen observation and an eye for detail.
  • Logical bent of mind.
  • Good communication skills.
  • Ability to work under pressure.

Institutes

Pay package

In research institutions, fresh post-graduates start with Rs 10 lakhs per annum. The starting salary of someone with a doctorate is usually higher and also R&D personnel in private industries are better paid.

Employment profile

Virologists are employed in just about every industry; food, health, agriculture, control, pollution, bio-technology, and pharmaceuticals. They are also engaged in government agencies and laboratories, such as National Institutes of Virology, water treatment facilities, and hospitals.

Dr W. Ian Lipkin
Dr W. Ian Lipkin

Positions, typically filled by those with a master’s degree, range from laboratory research to clinical studies to jobs involving production-related assignments. Scientists who have advanced degrees usually begin in research or teaching.

The employment opportunities for virologists look good, more so with the appearance of new viruses every day and the process of constant research. A few years ago, HIV dominated the headlines; then there was the need for a vaccine for influenza and tropical viruses such as Zika, SARS or Ebola. Now, we have a new strain of Corona virus.

Dr W. Ian Lipkin, world-renowned virologist, who himself battled COVID-19, said in an interview, “One of the things we need to learn from this is that we need to invest in our public health infrastructure, invest in our science, invest in global surveillance so things like this never happen again.”

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Dr Vibha Gupta
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Dr Vibha Gupta

Dr Vibha Gupta, a feature writer, is a Ph.D. in Mathematics from IIT Roorkee. Her book Careers: A Pathfinder and articles in various publications are an attempt to guide students in choosing a career according to their natural strengths, talents and skills.