Imagine if your job involved creating complex interactions among things
that were much too small to see with the naked eye. For the medical geneticist,
this is all in a day's work. By mapping out and combining genes, the medical
geneticist hopes to cure a very long list of diseases, from diabetes to Alzheimer's.
Sound like science fiction? Not really. New discoveries in genetics have
already resulted in numerous medical advances such as the creation of human
insulin and growth hormone drugs.
One day, even cancer may no longer be in our vocabulary. We will not only
live longer, but also enjoy healthier, high-quality lives, thanks to the hard
work of those in the medical genetics field.
"This is a great time to be coming out of graduate school with a PhD in
molecular genetics, biochemistry, or molecular cell biology," observes Mary
Harris. She is a medical geneticist and the winner of Glamour Magazine's Outstanding
Working Woman National Award. "I think we are in the embryonic stages of the
full potential of this discipline."
Where the Geneticists Are
Medical geneticists may also be found in such fields as agriculture, food,
and environmental and chemical industries.
"There are many different types of geneticists," explains Sandra Farrell,
a medical geneticist. "Some are physicians, some have a PhD, some are pure
researchers, some do clinical work, and some do a combination."
Farrell adds that there are jobs within the medical genetics field that
do not require a PhD or an MD, such as technologists and genetic counselors.
For the most part, however, medical geneticists are found in laboratories,
working furiously to create gene therapies that can save human lives. While
unearthing gene therapies for defective cells may be tedious, slow-going work,
the end results are nothing short of miraculous -- and may ultimately change
the way we experience illness.
"Genetics has always been like a game to me," says Harris. "You're given
some information, and with that information you're asked to solve a puzzle.
The intriguing thing is that the more you solve, the more questions you have
-- and they're great questions."
Mapping the Way to the Future
In the 1980s, a succession of medical advances in genetics resulted in
growth in the biotechnology field. A rapid increase in employment opportunities
was largely due to increased staffing needs in expanding biotechnology companies.
While a PhD is often the minimum requirement for a medical geneticist,
obtaining a medical degree is mandatory if the geneticist partakes in human
studies, where practical applications of gene therapies are put to the test.
For those with a PhD as well as a medical degree, finding practical applications
for gene therapy will translate into a more positive job outlook.
Harris now runs her own health-care communications company. She says that
"the biotechnology industry offers great challenges and, very often, great
salaries for those with a PhD."
For the student interested in pursuing a career as a geneticist, Harris
suggests a high school and college education in math and sciences, as well
as critical thinking courses. In college, most prospective geneticists major
in biology with a concentration in genetics, cell biology, or molecular biology.
At graduate school and beyond, a more defined genetics program is available
to the student.
More Than Just a Scientific Mind
Besides a strong comprehension of math and science, medical genetics professor
Ross McLeod suggests that the talented medical geneticist should also have
the ability to convey complex information in an understandable manner.
Creative problem-solving skills are also essential. "Genetics is no longer
a memory discipline, like anatomy," explains Harris. "It's a problem-solving
Ray Lewkonia, medical geneticist who specializes in musculoskeletal disorders,
compares the medical geneticist to explorers of the past. "I don't think Christopher
Columbus could have known how the New World would develop after his map-making
trip in 1492," he says.
"If you use that sort of analogy, the Amerigo Vespucci of medical geneticists
has only just left the harbor in Spain. We don't yet know where we are going!"
Careers in Human Genetics
Learn about the possibilities
Human Genome Project
Read about this historic project