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Genetic Scientists

The Job

The goal of genetic scientists is to increase biological knowledge so as to understand and cure genetic diseases; counsel families at risk of having children with genetic defects; and breed new crops and livestock, among other things. Most geneticists spend their time in a laboratory isolating particular genes in tissue samples and doing experiments to find out which characteristics those genes are responsible for. They work with chemicals, heat, light, and such instruments as microscopes, computers, electron microscopes, and other technical equipment. Besides having excellent mathematical and analytical skills, which will help them design and carry out experiments and analyze results, genetic scientists must also develop good writing and teaching techniques. They must be able to communicate their research results to students in classroom settings and to colleagues through published papers.

Profound academic and technological advances made over the last decade have brought about rapid progress in the field and opened up a whole new world for genetic scientists, who can now go just about anywhere their imagination leads them. Some of the many specialty areas for geneticists are described here.

Research geneticists typically complete a Ph.D. program, carrying out original research under a faculty member's direction. After earning their Ph.D.'s, most graduates do research for two to four years as postdoctoral fellows. Following this training, they are then qualified to hold faculty positions at academic institutions or to join the staffs of research institutes or biotechnology firms.

Laboratory geneticists apply modern genetic technology to agriculture, police work, pharmaceutical development, and clinical medicine. They typically have four to six years of college and are part of a staff of scientists trained in molecular biology, cytogenetics, biochemical genetics, immunogenetics, and related disciplines. Some genetic laboratories require their staff members to have specific training and certification in cytogenetic or medical technology.

Some genetic scientists specialize as genetic counselors. They are health professionals with specialized graduate degrees in medical genetics and counseling. They work as a valuable part of a health care team, giving information and support to families with birth defects or genetic disorders. Genetic counselors also help individuals who themselves have genetic conditions and counsel couples concerned about passing a harmful gene to a child. They identify families at risk, take down family medical histories, and obtain and interpret information about genetic conditions. They perform blood tests to detect possible harmful genes and predict the likelihood of genetic diseases occurring in children. Genetic counselors review available options with their clients, serving as patient advocates and making referrals to community or state support services. Some genetic counselors serve in administrative roles, while many conduct research activities related to the field of medical genetics and genetic counseling.

Clinical geneticists are even more highly trained specialists in the genetics field. They are generally medical doctors, having received an M.D. or D.O. degree and completed a pediatric, internal medicine, or obstetric residency, followed by specialized genetics training. Many clinical geneticists work at university medical centers or large hospitals, while some have private practices. Generally, this job involves recognizing genetic disorders and birth defects, understanding what they mean for the patient, arranging the proper treatment, and helping the patient and family understand and cope with the disorder. Some clinical geneticists work mainly with infants and children, while others may specialize in the genetic problems of babies still in the womb. They may also work with adult patients with inherited forms of heart disease, cancer, or neurological disease. An increasingly important role for the clinical geneticist is to be the link between scientists who are constantly advancing the field and the patients who stand to benefit from their discoveries.

Cytogeneticists study chromosome structure and function. They analyze chromosomes by making them visible under light microscopy. Living cells are first treated with a special stain that reveals stripes of light and dark regions along the length of each chromosome. Because the stripes are highly specific for a particular chromosome, stripe patterns help differentiate chromosomes from one another, making any abnormalities in number easily seen. Chromosome analysis may be done on just about any living tissue, but for clinical work, it usually is done on amniotic fluid (fluid surrounding the fetus), chorionic villi (fetal placenta), blood, and bone marrow. The work is challenging, like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.

Molecular geneticists study DNA, the blueprint for protein molecules in cells. An offshoot of cytogenetics, forensic genetics, is used by the law enforcement community to perform DNA fingerprinting, a subspecialty that is currently booming. Alec Jeffreys, a professor at Leicester University, discovered that each of us has highly specific patterns within our DNA located on many different chromosomes. The pattern is so distinctive that no two people's are the same, except for identical twins, which is why the technique is called DNA fingerprinting. It has been used to identify and convict criminals and to determine parentage.

Genetic engineers experiment with altering, splicing, and rearranging genes for specific results. This research has resulted in the discovery and production of insulin and interferon, two medical breakthroughs that can treat genetically caused diseases like diabetes. Agricultural triumphs like hybrid corn, disease-resistant grains, and higher quality livestock are all products of the principles of recombinant DNA and cloning.

Another specialty area for geneticists is population genetics. Population geneticists examine the breeding methods of farm animals and crops. They look at mutations that occur spontaneously or are introduced purposely to produce a marketable result.