Average Salary:

$84,760 according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (salary for Medical Scientists)

Training in Alabama:

University of Alabama at Birmingham – PhD and Medical Residency programs in genetics

“As a biochemical geneticist, my work specifically focuses on the diagnosis of inherited metabolic disorders, which typically afflict infants and young children, and often cause severe, even life threatening symptoms.”
Career Interview:
Briefly describe your career as a clinical laboratory geneticist.
Clinical genetic laboratories perform diagnostic tests on a variety of different patient samples in order to help refute or verify a suspected genetic disorder; the three types of genetic labs (cytogenetics, molecular genetics, and biochemical genetics) are necessary to cover the broad scope of genetic disorders. As a laboratory director, I am responsible for the overall operation of the lab, which includes interpretation and communication of test results, compliance with local and federal operating regulations, and development and evaluation of new procedures. Also, as a faculty member in an academic institution, I am heavily involved in a number of education and training programs, along with collaborative research and other service activities.

What type of environment do you work in?
I work in a modern, multidisciplinary biomedical science facility located on the UAB campus in Birmingham. Home to a mix of research and clinical scientists, students, trainees, and support staff, the work environment is active, diverse, and intellectually stimulating.

Describe a typical workday.
A significant proportion of my typical day involves evaluating and interpreting patient test results, and then communicating those findings to the appropriate clinician. As a biochemical geneticist, my work specifically focuses on the diagnosis of inherited metabolic disorders, which typically afflict infants and young children, and often cause severe, even life threatening symptoms. Therefore, it is not unusual to be involved in the care of one or more critically ill patients, whose management may be largely determined by the ability of my lab to quickly provide accurate diagnostic test results. Otherwise, the remainder of my day generally involves attention to academic responsibilities, which may include teaching, writing and/or reviewing papers, and attending seminars/meetings.

What type of education and experience is required for a career as a clinical laboratory geneticist?
For starters, a keen interest in science (particularly biology) is essential. At the college undergraduate level, a degree in genetics or a biological science should provide an appropriate foundation for postgraduate work in this area, which typically leads to a PhD in genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, and/or an MD. Particularly during one’s graduate education it may be helpful to seek out opportunities to interview or shadow a clinical laboratory geneticist in order to clarify interest in this career path. Following the conclusion of graduate studies, the next step is to complete 24 months of postdoctoral training in a program certified by the American Board of Medical Genetics (ABMG). During this time period, trainees receive in-depth education about laboratory techniques, genetic disorders, laboratory management, and must participate in the diagnosis and care of at least 150 patients. Finally, it is necessary to pass the appropriate board examinations in order to become ABMG certified in medical genetics and practice in the United States.

What is your educational background?
I received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Long Island University and a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from Rutgers University. I then performed postdoctoral research in biochemistry at the National Cancer Institute before completing ABMG training in biochemical genetics at Emory University.

Why did you choose this career?
Originally trained as a basic research scientist, I decided to pursue medical genetics as a means to participate more directly in patient care, while still being afforded the opportunity to perform cutting-edge research. Thus, a career in clinical laboratory genetics provides, for me, the best of both worlds.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of your job?
I enjoy many aspects of my career. These include the challenges associated with diagnosing a difficult case, working on new methods for the detection of a rare disease, and teaching the next generation of biomedical scientists about the complexities of genetics and the amazing cohort of chemical reactions performed by a cell. On the other hand, certainly the worst part of my job is diagnosing an infant or young child with an incurable disease.

Do you have any suggestions or words of wisdom for high school students interested in a career in your field?
Regarding laboratory genetics, it seems likely that the greatest increase in job opportunities over the next 5 – 10 years will occur within large referral labs, as opposed to small academic facilities.
In general, the field of Genetics is moving and evolving at a rapid rate; in the next five years it may be possible to obtain the sequence of one’s entire genome for $1000 or less, which was practically science fiction just a few years ago. When the thousand dollar genome becomes reality, the entire field – indeed medicine itself – may undergo the proverbial ‘paradigm shift’. Once we figure out effective methods to evaluate genome sequence data (no small feat) medical genetics will (and in many cases, already has) become a key component of nearly every aspect of healthcare. This implies the need for trained individuals who are capable of interpreting and explaining the consequences of genetic studies (see below).

Are there any other career opportunities in your field you think students should be aware of?
For the reasons described above, the most likely area of job growth within the field of medical genetics would seem to be genetic counseling (someone will have to explain what all that DNA sequence information means).

J. Daniel Sharer, PhD, FACMG
Assistant Professor and Director