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What Do Geneticists Do?

Tucked away in every cell of your body is a molecule called DNA. Smaller bits of DNA, called genes, contain blueprints that tell your cells how to make proteins. These proteins can perform a whole range of tasks, like building muscles or even making eye pigments! These genes are also physical units of heredity – they can be passed on to offspring and help shape traits of entire species.

DNA inside a cell
DNA inside a cell, Credit: Sponk, Tryphon, Magnus Manske, User:Dietzel65, LadyofHats (Mariana Ruiz), Radio89

Even though they are small, genes house fascinating stories of life just waiting to be told. Those determined to tell these stories have built a career in genetics!

Table of Contents

Who are Geneticists?

Working in the lab
Working in the lab, Credit: Yulia Kolosova

The field of genetics not only deals with genes but also what they mean for a population at large. It is the study of how information is passed from one generation to the next, and how this information shapes biological function!

Studying genetics is useful in many fields already, and more are on the way as technology catches up with research. Geneticists work in fields like medicine, agriculture, and even law enforcement!

In medicine, geneticists work to figure out the origins of diseases and why some people are born with diseases. Even during the pandemic, geneticists worked with other scientists to engineer the vaccines that have helped keep us safe! These professionals work tirelessly to find ways to treat or even prevent harmful illnesses.

With an ever-growing population, we are faced with issues like food shortage. Geneticists working in agriculture set out to develop crops that can grow well even in changing climate conditions. Their work is important in finding solutions to problems like world hunger.

Some geneticists are even detectives in the lab! With an understanding of DNA and tools like DNA sampling, geneticists can work closely with the police to help solve crimes.

Quite simply, geneticists are leaders in pushing the limits of what biology can be! No matter where they end up working, a geneticist is dedicated to uncovering the secrets in the DNA to make the world a better place.

How to make a career in Genetics?

How to make a career in genetics?
Credit: VideoPlasty

Just like the other sciences, a career in genetics requires extensive study. A Bachelor of Science degree in either chemistry or biology can help you get a job as a lab assistant. However, if you want to make your way as your own researcher, you need a PhD or an MD. These degrees train you to think like a researcher and equip you with tools to ask thoughtful questions. While you earn your PhD, you have the chance to take advanced science classes and spend the rest of your time working on your own research project! 

Once you’re out of school, you might start out as a research assistant, but you could also quickly make your way through the ranks to direct and build your own research. Most geneticists find jobs in universities, the government, or even pharmaceutical companies. Working as a geneticist allows you to make great discoveries!

Geneticists at Work!

Dr. Cynthia Keyon
Dr. Cynthia Keyon, Credit: Bengt Oberger

Sometimes the answers we’re looking for are found in unusual places. Dr. Cynthia Keyon would agree. For a long time, scientists believed that genes had no role in a process as inevitable as aging. However, Dr. Keyon had different ideas! To go about her experiments, she used a rather odd model to study – a worm! C. elegans, a rather common critter, navigates its way through the world by sensing chemicals. In her experiments, Dr. Keyon introduced a change, or a mutation, to a gene called daf-2 and found the life span of the worm nearly doubled! Since then, Cynthia Keyon has shown that there are many more genes that interact to play a role in aging for all living beings, humans included!

Dr. Courtney Griffin
Dr. Courtney Griffin

How do genes work to keep you healthy? Dr. Courtney Griffin is fascinated by this question! Working in a medical research center, Dr. Griffin knows just how important blood vessels are for a healthy heart! Since blood vessels develop in the same way in humans and mice, her lab uses these little rodents to find the genes that maintain, build, and repair blood vessels. According to Dr. Griffin, the best way to see how genes help blood vessel development is by altering one or two genes at a time in mice and watching the effect. She is excited to find out just what these genes are and how they can be used to create better treatment options for those who need it!

Building the future of Genetics

These are just a few of the scientists who have done incredible work in genetics. Throughout history, women scientists have made major contributions to help us understand just what genes can do. Unfortunately, their contributions often go unnoticed.

CRISPR Cas9 or the gene scissors
CRISPR Cas9 or the gene scissors, Credit: Elena I Leonova

In 2020, two women scientists, Dr. Jennifer Doudna and Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, made history – not only were they the first women to both share a Nobel prize, but they also discovered a tool that can cut through genes, called CRISPR Cas9. This discovery of “gene scissors” has opened up many more exciting opportunities for scientists all over the world!

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References

From DNA to Genomics | Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from https://naturalhistory.si.edu/education/teaching-resources/life-science/dna-genomics

Ledford, H., & Callaway, E. (2020). Pioneers of revolutionary CRISPR gene editing win chemistry Nobel. Nature, 586(7829), 346–347. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02765-9

Neill, U. S. A conversation with Cornelia Bargmann. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 128(7), 2655–2656. https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI122804

Women Pioneers in Genetics: Moving the Field Forward. The Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from https://www.wimlf.org/blog/women-pioneers-in-genetics-moving-the-field-forward