Veterinary Microbiology

A day in the life of a Veterinary Microbiologist

Veterinary Microbiologists study microorganisms that cause disease and infections in animals. These include bacteria, parasites and viruses.

NameDawn Alderson

Dawn Alderson

Job title

Centre Supervisor, Technical Manager and Functional Manager for Training and Education


Veterinary Microbiology

Career to date

I have a BSc. (Hons) in Biological Sciences (Microbiology) from the University of Edinburgh and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education from the University of Cambridge. Gaining an IBMS accredited MSc. in Biomedical Science from Ulster University allowed me to successfully apply to become a Chartered Scientist. After which, this enabled me to become a member of the Registration Assessment Committee at the Science Council and a member of the IBMS Specialist Advisory Panel for Medical Microbiology.

I’ve been a teacher and have worked in a Food Microbiology lab before switching to Veterinary Disease Surveillance, where I’ve worked for the last fifteen years. As well as managing the day to day operation of the SAC Consulting Veterinary Services Disease Surveillance Centre in Thurso, I’m our local Technical Manager and have responsibility for Training and Education across all of our eight sites in Scotland.

At the start of my shift

Our centre is open from 9am until 5.30pm; we don’t have shifts.

The first thing that I do is say hello to the other members of staff and see if there are any issues to deal with, check the calendar for any meetings or visitors, then check my emails. Priorities and workload can change on a daily basis and are largely dependent on the season. Springtime is our busiest period when farmers are busy with lambing and calving.

During the shift

Routine parasitology testing, including testing faecal samples for worm eggs and liver fluke eggs, is usually carried out by our Assistant Technician. The Senior Scientist usually sets up cultures and identifies bacterial isolates from farm and companion animal samples. We carry out some serological testing e.g. Western blots for Chlamydia, and indirect fluorescent antibody tests for Toxoplasma gondii. I can cover for both members of staff when they are away; I participate in internal and external quality assurance (IQA and EQA) testing to maintain my competence. I also select and distribute samples for some IQA exercises, then mark and write a report on the collated results. Covering other roles includes winching carcases into our post mortem room.

After checking emails I usually log in to our electronic quality system to see if I need to distribute, read or update existing standard operating procedures or write new ones, and document anomaly investigations.

My work may be punctuated by discussing an equipment breakdown with an engineer, checking that health and safety training has taken place, taking a case history from a farmer who has submitted a sheep carcase, answering telephone enquiries from Veterinary practices re: carrying out additional testing, or advising staff who would like to apply to join the Science Council’s Voluntary Professional Registers and become  Registered Scientists, Registered Science Technicians or Chartered Scientists. We have IBMS training laboratory approval for training support staff and our Assistant Technician has completed the IBMS Certificate of Achievement Part 1. We may also have visits from students from a high school or Veterinary Nursing students from our local college.

Having to deal with samples from more than one species keeps things varied and interesting and allows plenty of opportunity for CPD. A recent case involved investigating why koi carp were dying in a garden pond; we sought advice from a specialist fish vet on how to proceed, were able to culture a pure growth of a known pathogen in koi carp and then suggest appropriate treatment. We may be reporting isolation of Salmonella sp. from a bovine foetus to a government agency or setting up a culture from a raptor for ‘bumblefoot’, a disease frequently caused by Staphylococcus aureus.

At the end of my shift

We work later during busy periods, or if a post mortem examination has been carried out late in the day, so that samples can be turned around as quickly as possible. All cultures are set up and other sample types are refrigerated prior to transferring them to specialist labs the following day.