Making Microbiology More Accessible

Meet the scientist who is sharing the joy of microscopic life with everyone.

Photo courtesy of Justine Dees.

What started as a blog for a PhD to write about her passion for microbiology has quickly become one of the best online resources for anyone wanting to explore the wonders of the microscopic world.

Meet Dr. Justine Dees, your friendly neighborhood microbiologist. Justine is currently a professional science writer who first discovered a love for sharing her research with the public while working in the field of microbiology. By tossing the complicated jargon and introducing everyday people to cool experiments, Justine found a way to make microbiology more accessible. Along the way, she’s created a path for kids and adults to have fun with science at home.

Welcome to Joyful Microbe, Justine’s heart project, “where you can learn about the microbial world through fun and simple online resources.” With Justine’s guidance, you can go looking for lichens, open a window into the microbial world with a Winogradsky column, discover a wiggly water bear in your backyard, and (a pandemic favorite) — make sourdough starter from scratch. And that’s just the beginning.

It’s all about keeping these kinds of activities as accessible as possible. “If you can make science simple and easy to relate to, anyone can get into it because it impacts all of us,” says Justine. “I’ve had homeschooling moms email me and thank me for the science activities that I have on the blog and how excited they are to share that with their kids. A non-microbiologist scientist told me about how they bought a microscope for their kid and found a tardigrade. They even sent pictures to me when they found different cool microbes under the microscope. I loved that.”

A lot of people don’t realize that we are constantly cohabitating with microorganisms. They are all around us, an integrated part of our world and ourselves. You just need to know where to look — or what to eat.

“It’s rare for someone not to consume some sort of fermented food at some point in their life and likely on a daily basis, and that’s just one small thing non-scientists can connect with,” says Justine. “I want them to think about how microbes helped make the cheese they eat, that yeast helped make their bread, that microbes helped make the coffee they drank this morning taste delicious, that microbes in the soil make antibiotics that healed their infection and the delightful smell that comes after rain called geosmin.”

There’s nothing quite like discovering your first water bear, which can be easily found with even a cheap and low-powered microscope at home. Speaking from experience — just a couple years ago I bought my first microscope and was elated to find a tardigrade — it’s a thrilling adventure into the microscopic cosmos. You might not have realized that these adorable little creatures exist just out of sight. With the right tools, a whole other world is right at your fingertips.

“I don’t think I’ve found a person who is not excited by water bears, those adorable creatures living in moss and lichens,” says Justine. “And it’s crazy to think that they’re actually shaped sort of like a bear. I hope non-microbiologists can see how incredible those few examples are and know that there are a ton more that I will keep exploring on the blog and the podcast.”

A tardigrade, or water bear. Photo by Justine Dees.

Just last month, Justine took her popular blog to the next level by launching a brand-new podcast. Through interviews with microbiologists, Justine introduces listeners to the many kinds of microorganisms involved in our daily lives.

The inspiration for the podcast originated from Justine’s own love of learning through listening. “It’s a really neat way to learn things. When I’m getting ready for the day, driving in the car, doing the dishes, or cooking, I usually have a podcast or audiobook on so I can listen and learn something new. Because I love to learn that way, I’ve wanted to share Joyful Microbe in the same way.”

Justine hopes that the podcast will allow people who might be intimidated by an article, or who may not have the time to read and do an activity in order to explore their interest in science. “I’m hoping to reach people who may have trouble finding the time to sit down and read a blog post or don’t really like reading very much, but they don’t mind playing a podcast in the background and listening to someone talk about science. I hope to help those people get excited and see the beauty and wonder of the microbial world.”

It’s all about making the extraordinary world of the microcosmos a little more accessible to those who don’t hold a doctorate degree in microbiology. After all, microbes have a bit of a bad reputation with the rest of society. Justine’s work is helping combat this stereotype.

“I realized how important this topic is to share with the world because there is such a negative view of microbes. People think of them as scary and creepy and yucky, and all of that is true to a certain extent, but it’s really to a small extent,” says Justine. “It is a small number of microbes that, unfortunately, tend to represent the microbial world — the big scary ones are famous because they hurt people and then make the covers of newspapers and magazines. But the truth is those big scary ones represent only a fraction of the microbial world. So I want to help correct that view and help people realize that there are so many incredibly important microbes out there that keep us alive, but we don’t even think about them because they’re invisible.”

The microscopic world — made visible with the help of activities like the ones Justine guides us through — can be a beautiful thing. Justine’s blog and podcast aims to improve our appreciation of it. It’s hard not to admire the incredible colors generated by layers of microorganisms in a Winogradsky column.

A Winogradsky column. Photo by Justine Dees.

Even though Justine is busy with her successful science content business, she continues to grow her blog and podcast. “I’m not going to stop creating content for the Joyful Microbe just because I succeeded at starting my business. I look at the Joyful Microbe differently: I now consider it a part of my business. And I love both aspects of my business, the science content writing I do for my clients and the content creating I do for the Joyful Microbe,” she says.

“I feel it is my responsibility to help people better understand the microbial world. It’s super important to me that people understand that not all microbes are bad and that what most people think of as germs is a small fraction of the microbial world. I want to highlight more of the microbes that are quietly living their lives doing the amazing things in the world and helping us in ways that are not always obvious.”

I say, keep up the good work. More people deserve to know about and have access to the extraordinary world of microbes.

Love what Justine does? Learn how you can support her!

Photo courtesy of Justine Dees.

Science writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest. | she/they

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