A program that focuses on the scientific study of subcellular pieces of genetic material, called viruses, that inhabit living cells in parasitical relationships and their role in disease. Includes instruction in virus taxonomy and systematics, viral structures, viral genetics, prions, virus/host cell interaction, viral pathogenesis, and applications to specific topics such as cancer biology.
Virologists work to understand viruses that can affect various life forms and minimize the damage they cause.
A virus is a fragment of genetic code wrapped in a protein coat. Since it's mostly composed of DNA or RNA, it doesn't have the capacity to replicate itself; however, by attaching itself to a host cell, a virus can infect it and use pieces of it to create copies of itself. This process is a feat of complex parasitism, and it's part of what makes viruses hard to deal with. An infected cell is at risk of dying; if it does, the virus will move on to another cell - they can't do much of anything without a host cell. This process can be incredibly damaging to a living organism, as evidenced by well-known viruses like HIV, influenza, and coronaviruses. Viruses are much smaller than bacteria and can't be seen under a microscope, which necessitates special equipment and visualization methods.
Most work in virology has to do with studying the behavior of viruses and working out how to mitigate the damage an infection can cause. However, scientists continue to find new ways they can benefit us; for example, some viruses can be used to explore and probe cells. The more we know about them, the better our chances at surviving a world where viruses are everywhere.
Work in virology may include...
- Studying the traits and behaviors of viruses
- Developing virus
- specific treatment methods
- Processing biological specimens
- Performing virology assays
- Working in containment labs and biohazard equipment
It's everything we can do to keep up with viruses, and there's always work for qualified virologists who can find ways to keep them at bay. Most virologists work in clinical or research settings, though more and more are finding work in pharmaceutical development for antiviral medications and vaccines. Much of this work occurs in university, hospital, and government labs. Due to the nature of their work, virologists are frequently exposed to biohazardous materials and must take extensive safety measures to protect themselves from infection.
Becoming a virologist requires a long-term commitment to the subject. This process starts with an undergraduate education in biology, with coursework in chemistry, cell biology, and microbiology. Most undergraduates don't get many chances to study virology in depth, but having essential lab skills and foundational knowledge can get them in the door. Positions as lab technicians and research assistants may be available to candidates with a Bachelor's degree, but those who want to do more in the field usually pursue graduate study.
An aspiring virologist's path tends to involve either medical school, doctoral study, or both; with residencies, post-doctoral training, and field work, becoming a fully qualified professional can take up to a decade or more. PhD programs tend to be more research oriented, with time spent in the lab culminating in a written dissertation. Medical school provides more of a clinical angle, with patient training and hospital rotations. Some schools offer dual degrees for those who want to streamline their studies, which can be a great option for students who don't want to sacrifice either clinical experience or independent research. Medical school graduates are required to follow up their degrees with a residency, which takes around three years, after which they can pursue licensure to practice virology. PhD grads are encouraged to pursue fellowships, which allow them to further their research in a practical setting. Regardless of the path or how long it ends up taking, many virologists find their careers to be very rewarding in the long term.
Virologists contribute valuable, life-saving knowledge to the medical and scientific community, and their work has never been more visible. If you want a ticket into the club, consider pursuing a career in virology.
For more information, please follow the links below:
- The American Society for Virology provides a forum for investigators of human, animal, insect, plant, fungal, and bacterial viruses, whether the research involves clinical, ecological, biological, or biochemical approaches.
- The Pan American Society for Clinical Virology fosters the scientific development and medical practice of viral diagnostic testing.
- Virology Journal is a research publication committed to covering all areas within virology research.