Medical genetics is a field full of ongoing discoveries about how
to better diagnose, treat and prevent genetic conditions. Experts predict
that genomics medical research companies will soon be looking for workers.
"This is a perfect time to think of going into this area," says Alison
Symington. She's vice-president of outreach for a genomics institute.
Discovering how human genetics works is a rewarding process. It can lead
to cures for diseases like diabetes or cancer. That's the promise of genomics
A genome is the DNA, including the entire collection of genes, in an organism.
Genomics medical researchers work with the sequences of those genes. By doing
so, researchers can design new drugs to fight diseases.
"Medical genomics is a very wide, somewhat ill-defined field at the moment,
and undergoing lots of flux," says Howard Edenberg. He's the director of the
Center for Medical Genomics at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
"It ranges, on the one hand, from very detailed laboratory studies and
new technology development through many different kinds of studies of how
genes work in the body and how changes in the genes relate to disease in people
and other traits in people, all the way through... using some of the information
developed from these studies, either at the MD level to guide treatment or
genetic counseling level," says Edenberg. "So it really runs a huge gamut."
The top-level researchers at genomics medical research companies are medical
geneticists. Their goal is to improve people's health through the use and
interpretation of genetic information.
The workers involved in genomics medical research have all levels of training,
from lab technicians with associate's degrees to lab directors with PhDs and
"In the laboratory it ranges from using a number of different kinds of
techniques to explore what the genome is doing, to how it differs in people
who have one disease or another, to how it's affected by the environment,
using a really wide range of different technologies and approaches," says
"And so [in the lab] it spans everybody from technicians through master's
and PhD level people and MD level people. It's quite broad. But [genomics
medical research] will be having more of an impact on health care in... the
fairly near future."
Genomics medical research is mostly happening in settings other than private
research companies at the moment.
"Most people who get a job [at present] will be linked to a university
or hospital setting if they want to do medical genomics research," says Symington.
"Really, only now are genomics companies taking off."
In other words, genomics medical research companies aren't a large employer
yet compared to university, government and hospital settings.
"It has taken [time] to get the research to the point where we can do genomics
research within a company, produce products, etc.," says Symington.
"So I would say it has a huge growth potential."
If you want to be ready when that time comes, start your education now.
"Most people will need a degree in biochemistry or in molecular biology
or cell biology -- those kinds of degrees," says Symington. "Because when
they're taught those degrees, it will include genomics in the course curriculum.
"So that means [in] high school they need to continue to take biology and
chemistry. It's really important they take chemistry, because... in university,
those biology courses, there's a lot of biochemistry in them, and so you kind
of get lost a little bit if you don't take [chemistry]."
Careers that relate to medical genomics research are far-reaching.
- Molecular biologists and chemists conduct research and development.
- Bioinformatics refers to computer experts who build and manage databases
to handle the massive amounts of data generated by genomics medical research.
- Mechanical and electrical engineers build and market instruments, including
robots, that help speed the research discovery process.
- Chemical and manufacturing engineers oversee mass production of the drugs
that are developed.
- Genomic counselors help people make lifestyle decisions based on their
Non-technical career opportunities are also springing up. You could work
- Business developer or salesperson for the firms that will be marketing
their products or services as a result of the work of genomics researchers
- Technical writer
- Quality assurance and testing worker
- Product user-support person
- Accountant and financial analyst
How much education you need depends on the position you want.
Biological scientists usually need a PhD to do independent research. However,
a master's degree is enough for some jobs in product development or applied
research. A scientist who is going to actually interact medically with patients
would also have to have a medical degree.
You can also work as a research assistant or a medical laboratory technician.
Those positions don't require as much education.
"If you're talking about a researcher on a research level running a lab,
we're talking there about people who've got PhDs, or postgraduate degrees,"
"But that flows all the way down to people who have master's degrees and
there are opportunities for people with bachelor's degrees in these labs...
as well as people with college degrees. I actually used to teach in college
and quite a few of my students are working in genomics research, and they
have a college diploma, because the hands-on research... which the colleges
are very good at, is in great demand."
Experts predict a big shortage of people qualified to be genomic counselors.
"I think it's obvious that in the next five years we'll have enough information
to start guiding management of lifestyle... based on a patient's genome,"
says Naftali Kaminski. "And we're not training people to provide this advice."
Kaminski is a professor of medicine, pathology, human genetics and computational
biology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
"We have genetic counselors, but they're trained to calculate probabilities
of prenatal diagnosis [of genetic disorders] and things like that," says Kaminski.
"They're very good at what they do, but this is more of a single-gene, probabilistic
approach, [while we] need people who are fluent computationally, who can handle
complex data sets and information."
Genomics medical research companies are also likely to employ genomic counselors
in the future. These counselors will work in many different settings, informing
people about their increased risk of complex diseases such as diabetes and
non-disease traits such as baldness.
"You'll go to... the pharmacy next door and you'll get your genome on a
flash drive," says Kaminski. "Somebody will need to tell you what to do with
it. So if you're looking at the next wave of medical genomics jobs, it could
be genomic counselors and [also] MDs who do genomic decision management --
that's what we're not training at all. We don't even have this group."
What level of training will these genomic counselors need?
"I think the minimum is going to be a master's," says Kaminski. "There
are new programs in translational medicine that are emerging everywhere in
the country, that give you a master's or PhD in translational medicine, [which
are] sort of more grounded in real-life problems, and I think some of these
programs will emerge as a training program for genomic medicine, because they
have the usually very robust training in statistics, epidemiology, stuff like
this, and they're also patient oriented."
Kaminski says there is a strong demand in industry for people with graduate
and post-graduate training in biostatistics and computational biology.
"In general, biostat[istical] and computational biology people do well
in the job market," says Kaminski. "I think that we'll see [even] bigger demand
[for] master's level genomics counselors and... MD-level people as the data
emerge in the next three to five years."
The range of opportunities in genomics research is large and only going
to grow. It seems clear that career success is in the genes.
Human Genome Project
Check out this great site for some background on genomics
Biotechnology Industry Organization
This is a good resource site on the biotechnology industry as
American College of Medical Genetics
Access news and resources about this industry
Kent McKelvey, Medical Geneticist
In this video a medical geneticist explains what he enjoys about