I haven’t posted in a while, but given the experience here I thought I post a question on behalf of my daughter.
She’s very interested in genetics & considering a career in the field. She’s in grade 11, so things may change, but currently is thinking about becoming a genetic counselor or a lab technician, but really is just trying at this point to understand her options and figure out what undergrade program she should apply for later this year.
As she looks at undergrad programs there’s a lot of terms she’s coming across that we’re having trouble figuring how exactly what they are & what they mean in the context of a job in genetics. To start with:
What are molecular biology, biochemistry & how do they relate to genetics
Any other jobs (outside of academia) you’d suggest she consider?
Molecular biology is just what it sounds like: a study of the molecules of life and how they work in metabolism, signalling, any biological processes. Since genetics is, at bottom, a molecular phenomenon, there’s the sub-disciplne of molecular genetics, the molecular biology of DNA. Biochemistry is the study of the chemical reactions of life. Obviously there’s a great deal of overlap with molecular biology. These days, I would say that the great majority of genetics is molecular: genetic testing, DNA sequencing, the study of gene regulation. All involve the use of biochemical reactions.
As for the second part, how about the various genetic testing and sequencing companies?
If by “lab technician”, a clinical laboratory career is in mind, the fork in the road is pretty much right from high school. At least here in Canada, this is an demanding applied skill tract that is generally qualified by an educational path that does not transfer readily in either direction between an academic degree program. Also, expect to personally fetch bodily fluids from patients. Genetics counseling likely involves an applicable undergraduate degree followed by some more focused study.
Thanks, I’ll have to get her to look into this. She had been told that doing a bachelors in something related to genetics + an extra year would be the path to being a lab tech. (We’re in Canada as well).
Genetic Counselling requires a specific Master’s program. It’s very hard to get into, so part of what she is thinking about is what else she could work at at with a Bachelors in the area of genetics.
She’s very interested in human genetics but at least for now has little interest in plant genetics
I’ll just pitch in that MATH never goes out of style. Programming is still a crucial skill, but we are on the cusp of seeing a lot of basic programming replaced by AI generators like ChatGPT. A deeper understanding of the underlying mathematics- for any topic - is much harder to replace.
Aside from trying to aim at a career in this general area, I think it greatly important that she read and learn about all manner of basic biology just for the pleasure of it. She needs to love this stuff! There are many great books out there that would fascinate someone her age. Here are some examples. Guns, Germs, and Steel The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks The Serengeti Rules (and any other book by the biologist Sean Carroll. Not to be confused with the astrophysicist of the same name. He is cool too, btw, but not a biologist).
She could also go to the HHMI Biointeractive web site. This has lots of open source educational videos about all areas of biology, commonly used by high school teachers, I am sure. She can spend hours there soaking up fascinating and very well produced videos about genetics, and other areas as well.
Who knows where these adventures might take her? Its an exciting time.
I’ve been a lab tech primarily in a research setting but with some interaction with clinical medicine. When I started 25+ years ago there wasn’t much training in standard molecular techniques at the undergrad level. Nearly all of what I learned was through work experience. I think the situation is a bit different now, so I would strongly suggest any classes/labs that expose students to standard techniques like PCR, DNA modification, and sequencing. With the advent of PacBio and Nanopore sequencing nearly any science department should have access to sequencing. As others have mentioned, getting experience with computer programming (i.e. bioinformatics) is also important.
In my opinion, it is important to decide which track your daughter is interested in: clinical or research. From my experience, research is much more rewarding. Lab techs in a clinical lab (aka med techs) are cogs in a machine, turning out standard tests as quickly as they can. It’s much more like an assembly line. With some advancement there is opportunity to design new clinical tests, but that is rare.
Research involves designing your own tests and acting as a vital part of a research group. To compare the two, working as a lab tech in a research program is like creating your own art while working as a med tech in a clinical lab is like running a xerox machine (a bit of a hyberbole, but you get the drift). There can still be situations where a lab tech in a research program will be doing mundane and repetitive work, but there’s a much better chance for much more exciting positions.
Once your daughter begins university I would strongly suggest that she look into research intern programs (if they are available in Canada). I have actually worked in these programs mentoring undergrads. It is a great way for students to see if research is something they will find rewarding. I have seen many of our students move on to graduate school after their undergrad years.
The one warning I would give is that research isn’t as financially stable compared to a career in medicine, at least here in the states. Research lab tech positions are also much less numerous compared to clinical positions. However, I still think its worth the effort and risk.