Microbiology education - why doesn't everyone know that?

Ever wonder why so many people get it wrong when it comes to microbiology? ECS Committee Chair Jennie French offers some valuable perspectives.

As a microbiologist, it’s easy to look at non-scientists and internally scream “how can you not know the difference between bacteria and viruses?!” Or in the case of this pandemic, “Why would you ever think that drinking bleach was a good idea?!”

You may assume that they lack common sense or are simply stupid, but it’s not all their fault.

Let’s go back to when you were a child in school. When was the first time you remember being formally taught about bacteria or disease? For me it was A-Level biology and we were being taught a simple structure of bacteria as well as the extreme environments that bacteria can survive in.

A-level biology is already a step further than a lot of school children delve into science; in 2019 63,600 people in England took A-Level biology, that’s only 0.001% of England’s total population in the same year. What about higher education though? Only 0.01% of the UK population were enrolled on a university science course and 0.008% of the population were on courses that may have exposed them to microbiological concepts.

“Surely people must have a basic knowledge from school?!” I hear you cry. Well, the first time children in England will formally come across bacteria is between the ages 11 and 14 at the school level known as key stage 3. The reason for this is the sheer volume of science that children are required to be taught in school as well as more general critical thinking and experimentation in primary school. There is no solution for this and while science communication does a great job at targeting specific audiences for specific topics, this is informal learning is often provided at the discretion of the teacher or school.

What I’m getting at with all of this is that only a small number of the population will have memorably come into contact with microbiology. What you consider to be common knowledge, or a simple concept, may never have been learnt by 99% of the population and they’ve never had cause to think of the difference between bacteria and viruses let alone how they behave.

The moral of this is that we should be more understanding of those who find our passion to be an unsolvable puzzle and help people learn from their misconceptions. Instead of ridiculing and embarrassing someone, point them at simple sources of information to encourage them on their learning journey. If you can, explain the correct version of the fact to them without using the phrase “you’re wrong” or words that you’ve only come across because you’ve had the education.

Our microbiology knowledge is a power, and at a time when a virus is the centre of everyone’s existence, a set of directions. Let’s show others the right way to go instead of pulling faces at them as we drive past.


Jennie French

ECS Committee Chair



Higher education statistics agency: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/what-study

English National Curriculum: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study

Ofqual A-level stats (England): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/825429/A-Level-infographic_current___3_.pdf