A Day In The Life of a Microbiologist

Image from Springer

Dr. Brian Kinkle is a great example of how versatile a profession in microbiology can be, and how innovative one must be to pursue many aspects of the career. Growing up in a military family, he is from the D.C area but moved around a lot as child, “I’ve traveled a lot of places. My dad was in the military. I used to live in England, Portugal, Spain…” One thing most people may not know about Dr. Kinkle is that he was kind of a slacker in high school and joined the Peace Corp for two years once he graduated, stationed in Africa. He was an agriculture teacher while stationed there and when asked if that was his inspiration for being a professor he exclaims, “Actually exactly the opposite, I hated teaching after that.” He always liked biology, so after the Peace Corp he attended the University of Maryland to pursue a Bachelor’s of Biology and followed that at the University of Minnesota where he received his PhD in microbiology.

Image from UC

What Does a PhD in Microbiology Mean?

            A PhD in microbiology can lead to many different environments of work, depending on preference. Microbiologists can work in the medical field and do research through labs focusing on diseases and the life cycles of bacteria, viruses, etc. Microbiologists can also work in commercial research with things like pharmaceuticals or the food industry, to test new drugs to fight pathogens and to develop new ways of processing food and keeping it safe on the shelf, respectively. Aside from those opportunities, there is always room for microbiologists in government run agencies like the FDA and CDC. An option for anyone seeking  PhD is to become a faculty member at a University, do research projects and teach classes to students pursuing a similar path. The field of microbiology is vast, and open to a change of pace when the individual so seeks that. It also has room for promotional purposes and a satisfying salary for most, around $70,000 starting out in the field.

Image from UC

Then Why Stuck With the Freshmen?

Before Dr. Kinkle got into teaching the freshman biology course he currently is involved with here at UC, he was involved with active research pertaining to environmental studies, particularly soil content. When asked about his work he responds, “Oh I loved it, I got a lot of grants, and I was involved with my research for 15 years.” During those 15 years, Dr. Kinkle was asked to teach micro classes as well. Ironically, as much as he is a fighter for active learning now, that did not used to be the case. He explains that when he first started teaching, he read off the PowerPoint slides and was not very interactive with his students.
“I only gave it up because I saw how poorly the freshman were being taught biology, and that was affecting upperclassmen when they got to my micro classes.” He explained that students in their third and fourth years did not know information that should have been covered during their first biology class. He went on to say that he was happy with his research but felt a stronger need in the freshman biology course, he felt as though he could make a greater difference there. Giving his lab and research grants over to colleagues he began to take over Biology 1001 and shape it into the course it is today. Taking that kind of initiative, to give away a lab with funded research, shows a lot about the passion he shares for innovation in the classroom.

What Is Daily Life Like?

Being a professor of microbiology, one may suspect many hours spent in the lab with rigorous schedules of material to get through. Dr. Kinkle counters that, “You know there is a lot of freedom, yeah I work 60-80 hour weeks and put in a lot of hard work, but you get to do it your own way.” Along with the freedom, does come a few hundred students and a couple hundred emails each week, but anyone interested in a schedule they design may admire this aspect of the career. The busy schedule comes most often from meetings, student interactions, and planning for lectures. Considering Dr. Kinkle’s spin on the career, he does not often have lab responsibilities as he did previously, but he now has more informational meetings and workshops to attend, or lead in some cases. He describes a lot of traveling to different schools, listening to speakers, and engaging in group activities among professors as a typical responsibility in his profession.

Along with a career always comes the ups and the downs. Dr. Kinkle speaks for himself when he says, “The perks for me, are the feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction I receive from my students, seeing them improve and change. That’s what it’s about,” Careers are about doing something worthwhile, something satisfying for 30+ years. Teaching at a university may fall into the lap of someone who likes to be creative and see a change for the better in people they directly deal with; someone with the patience to care and motivate others to do their best work. What challenges do professionals face when instructing in courses in which they are experts? Dr. Kinkle replies, “Well, aside from the dominant feeling of joy, my biggest concern on a daily basis is how I can get better at getting students to learn faster,” This shows yet again how innovative and proactive professors may aim to be, in order to make a real difference in their classrooms.

Image from Cornell

What Were the Motives For Him Personally?

            As previously stated, microbiologists with a PhD can become professors at universities but that does not guarantee that they receive any extra training on how to “teach” the material to students. Even Dr. Kinkle admits to not teaching in the best ways at the beginning of his career. After taking over freshman biology, he explained that he began attending workshops and reading literature on active learning. He said, “I was very determined to make a difference, I felt as though I could be useful there.”

He and his wife, a professor of physics at UC, both feel as though this is the place for them to change the lives of students coming through college. The initiative to take on a big challenge, like changing the failure rates in a freshman lecture, is a quality all professors can aspire to have. Leaving the interview, Dr. Kinkle stops me and gives me advice to anyone wishing to pursue a career in academia, not just microbiology. He states,

“Learn about teaching, we need more teachers that know how to teach. It makes your job that much easier and better for you, and for your students. Learn to be humanistic, and less like a scientist, if that is your specialty of choice. The secret to happiness in this job is empathy, do not feel bad for your failing students, understand them and think about how you can help them. That’s my advice.”

Microbiology is a surprisingly vast field and a PhD can go a long way. Whether it is working for the government on food sales, working in a medical research lab curing a disease, or teaching young professionals the importance of the subject, anyone interested in pursuing the career has room to grow and make a living for themselves. Dr. Kinkle has opened up his side of the story, but there are many others with the same degree, doing very different things. A special thank you to Dr. Kinkle for taking the time to enlighten me on everything biology has to offer him.

Image from Department of Pathology

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