Wanna be a Virologist?

Published on November 22nd, 2011
Wanna be a Virologist?

A virologist is someone who researches and studies viruses that infect humans, animals, bacterial cells and plants. He normally works in a laboratory, studying organisms under a microscope.

We chat to Dr Gert van Zyl from the University of Stellenbosch about this fascinating career.

What type of person do you need to be to succeed as a Virologist?
As viruses cannot be seen with the with the naked eye, or even a light microscope, but require an electron microscope (which is not readily used) one needs to have a vivid imagination and aptitude for the abstract. Diagnostic virology is very analytical – so one needs attention to detail as one makes use of different kinds of tests to diagnose viral infections, and it is critical to understand whether the results of a particular test are valid. In order to interpret test results one also needs a good knowledge of health sciences, as these tests are interpreted in the context of the patient’s overall health. As the field is growing rapidly one needs to constantly adapt to new knowledge, therefore part of the job is life-long learning. Virological pathologists form the link between the treating doctor or nurse (clinical caregiver) and the laboratory where the diagnostic tests are performed. Virological pathologists therefore advise the clinical caregivers on which specimens to collect and which tests to request; furthermore they interpret the test results and report this back to the clinical caregiver: this requires good and accurate communication skills.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
There are two aspects that I find most fulfilling. The one is when one’s role in viral diagnostics assists a doctor or nurse to give the right treat a patient correctly. The other is when one solves a particular diagnostic problem through research.

Do you have any advice for young people (high school) who are interested in pursuing this as a career?
My advice would be general. If you are interested in the field try to visit someone in their working environment and talk a lot to people in such a field or related field. There is a big difference in being interested in something and actually making a career out of it. Keep in mind, someone who wants to become a virological pathologist would first need to study medicine.