If you're the kid who always drove her parents crazy by asking "Why?," you might have the kind of inquiring mind a medical researcher needs. Medical researchers work on the frontier where pure science and medicine cross paths, making the basic discoveries that lead to new treatments and new medications. For example, medical geneticists study the ways that genes influence medical conditions, either by causing them or creating new ways to diagnose and treat them.
The study of genetics dates back to the 19th century, but only came into its own as a modern science in 1953, when U.K. researchers described the stucture of DNA molecules. DNA is the basic building block that makes up genes, which carry the "blueprint" of living organisms. After this breakthrough, medical researchers could begin the task of isolating genes that caused specific hereditary illnesses. In 2003 researchers completed the years-long task of identifying all the roughly 25,000 genes that make up a human. With this base of knowledge in place, modern-day medical geneticists have begun to build a broader understanding of how genetics and illness are related.
Your duties as a medical geneticist will vary depending what kind of research project you're involved in and whether you also practice medicine. To generalize, most of the time you're either collecting or analyzing data. You might collect data by treating patients with specific diseases, and searching their DNA for specific genes or gene variations. Alternatively you might work with experimental animals such as mice or zebrafish, observing and recording their response to environmental factors or specific drugs. For researchers who are also medical doctors, data collection can be as simple as reporting the medical details of large groups of patients.
Often your biggest contribution to a research project won't come in the laboratory, but in front of a computer. With so many human diseases, and so many genes, the best way to find correlations between them is by using computers to chew through mountains of data. That requires a strong grasp of statistical analysis, as well as the computer and programming skills to find patterns in the data. It's a huge effort, and a 2012 paper published in ''BMC Medical Genetics'' reported that even when diseases shared genes in common their respective researchers seldom exchange information about their work. Cross-disease research, if it becomes more common, might speed progress in the field.
You can become a medical geneticist through two different paths. If you're primarily interested in the scientific side of the field, you take a bachelor's degree in biology and follow it up with a doctorate in genetics. Alternatively, M.D.s can become medical geneticists by completing a four-year residency or two years of specialized training after residency in a different are of medicine. Some medical schools offer a joint M.D./Ph.D. program that gives you both degrees when you graduate. Whichever path you take to enter the field, your employment prospects are bright. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected 36 percent job growth for medical scientists between 2010 and 2020, more than double the average for all occupations.
- Nobel Prize.org: The Discovery of the Molecular Structure of DNA - The Double Helix
- American Association for the Advancement of Science: The Future of Genetics -- Career Opportunities for Young Scientists
- National Human Genome Research Institute: Medical Genetics Branch
- American Board of Medical Genetics: Training Options
- Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai: Medical Genetics Residency and Fellowship Programs
- BMC Medical Genetics: Cross-pollination of Research Findings, Although Uncommon, May Accelerate Discovery of Human Disease Genes; Marlena Duda, et al.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Medical Scientists
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