Career Profiles

Cliff Houston - Career Profile

Exploring the Mysteries of How Bacteria Make Us Sick


   What kind of scientist are you?

   Specifically, I'm a bacteriologist. My job is to look at various types of bacteria that cause stomach and intestinal infections and wound infections.

   Please briefly describe your main research interests and activities.

   I'm interested in studying what mechanisms or factors are produced by bacteria that aid those bacteria in causing disease. We could cure people or prevent them from getting sick if we could understand the mechanisms for causing disease.

I feel my role, working toward understanding and curing diseases, is just as important as that of the doctor who works toward treating disease. The discoveries that research scientists make have an impact on millions of people if we can figure out how to cure a disease. While we may not touch patients directly, we have an indirect impact on patients by developing vaccines and ways to make disease-causing microbes less harmful.

When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist? What sparked your interest?

I realized I was particularly interested in the sciences probably when I was in late elementary school. I'd become fascinated just watching an ant crawl up a blade of grass. I remember creating my own ant farms with Mason jars filled with dirt. My mother always walked into my bedroom very cautiously because she never knew what I may have found and decided to bring home that day. By the time I was in junior high, I had already participated in a science fair and won first prize. I've always had a curiosity in what makes life work.

What are the most interesting problems or projects you've worked on?

When I was a graduate student I worked on a toxin, or poison, produced by a bacterium called Streptococcus pyogenes. I was able to help determine what roles it plays in causing disease. I've always worked with bacterial toxins and my main goal is to understand the role these toxins play in disease.

What training did you need to reach your current position? What degrees do you hold?

I did my undergraduate work at Oklahoma State University where I received a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology. I went on to receive a Master's degree in biology from OSU and ultimately a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center. After that I spent two years in post-doctoral training at the University of Texas Medical Branch before becoming a faculty member, which is where I work today.

If you like biology, you must be willing to take a lot of chemistry. I remember when I was growing up, I thought those were two separate disciplines and I couldn't understand the need to learn chemistry if I was going into the biological sciences. I now realize these subjects are intertwined. You cannot separate biochemistry from microbiology or distinguish between molecular biology and cell biology. You must have knowledge of all the disciplines in the life sciences if you're going to be a successful researcher. All those principles will be used in everyday research in the lab.

Math and science don't have to be boring or difficult. It's how we pursue it that makes a difference in whether it's exciting or boring. Good instructors made all the difference in the world as to whether I found a subject interesting or not.

Do you tend to work independently or do you usually work with a team of researchers?

At my institution, it's encouraged that the clinicians and the basic researchers work together on projects. Other people in health sciences as well team up on projects to more effectively address issues.

What kinds of equipment do you use?

We use an electron microscope to magnify bacteria several thousand times to get a better feel for their characteristics. It's very intriguing, because you feel like you're unfolding some of nature's secrets. There's a world that none of us can see with the naked eye, but it's a world full of intrigue. This equipment opens up a whole new door to what life has in store here on Earth.

Do you travel much?

When you become a successful microbiologist and publish your research in well-known journals, people begin to request that you come to their institutions to present in seminars. The opportunities to travel to national and international seminars, conferences and workshops are very rewarding.

Do you work a standard 8-hour day or one that's longer or shorter?

I can definitely say it's longer. Most scientists work strange hours and long hours. I don't know what it means to watch the clock and hope that 5:00 arrives. The time you put in is well worth it. You don't even realize the time is passing. I personally like the flexible hours.

What are the best parts of being a microbiologist?

It's exhilerating when you break through a challenge and unlock some of nature's secrets. There's no better reward.

The ability to chart new paths as a pioneer is something very exciting. What we're doing now generates the material for the textbooks of the future; we're writing new history.

What are the drawbacks?

You must have patience and discipline. Every time you get the answer to a problem, it opens up three or four more questions that need to be answered. Sometimes the answers to very difficult questions don't come easily. It requires persistance and determination to solve some of these questions.

You must be organized and disciplined so your research doesn't become all-consuming and take up all of your time. You have to keep a well-balanced life. You can do that by having other interests, such as entertainment or music.

Some of the drawbacks depend on where you work—in academia or industry or the government—each has pluses and minuses. But the bottomline, I think, is that the pluses outweigh the minuses.

cliffwithkids2Do you have any advice for young people who are interested in microbiology?

I'd suggest that they get some microbiology books and look through them and that they check around their school and community and see if there are any science enrichment programs they could participate in. For example, at the University of Texas Medical Branch we have tours of the campus for middle school students and elementary students. I don't think anytime is too early to expose children to aspects of a scientific career.

I'd encourage them to participate in science fairs and get involved in science clubs at their schools. I'd also suggest that they do volunteer work over the summer in a research laboratory to get as much practical and realistic experience as they can in the field so they have a good basis for making career decisions.

It's a good idea to find programs that talk about career options to survey all the career possibilities out there before they actually make a decision.


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