Interviewing a Clinical Geneticist

On March 4th AIOG hosted Dr. Hui Zhang at UConn Health to share her career experiences as a Clinical Geneticist. Dr. Zhang is an Assistant Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics as well as the Co-Director of the DNA Diagnostic Lab at Yale University. After earning her MD at Shanghai Medical University, Dr. Zhang went on to pursue her PhD at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. Once she became board certified in clinical genetics Dr. Zhang was hired at her current position at Yale University. During the presentation Dr. Zhang shared her journey to becoming a Clinical Geneticist and some of the insights she gained while pursuing this career path after completing her PhD. 

How do I become a Clinical Geneticist?

If you are interested in becoming a Clinical Geneticist you will need to obtain either an MD or PhD from an accredited American or Canadian program as well as become certified by the American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ABMGG). After that, you will need to apply to one of about 50 accredited training programs. These training programs offer two- to three-year fellowships in order to prepare you for a career as a Clinical Geneticist. More information can be found at the American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics Website, http://www.abmgg.org/.

How hard is it to become a Clinical Geneticist?

Getting into an accredited training program can be difficult, since spots are limited and the program is intensive. Yale University is the only certified training program in Connecticut and offers about 1 spot per year. Successful applicants should have educational and/or research training in genetics and data analysis. In addition, candidates with post-doctoral experiences and/or a strong understanding of bioinformatics and next-generation sequencing will be more competitive. Overall, applicants with expertise in molecular genetics and mechanisms of genetic contributions of disease will certainly improve the odds of being accepted into one of the training programs.

What is the training program like? 

Specifically, at Yale University, the program focuses on the fundamentals of molecular and laboratory genetics, diagnostics, bioinformatics, genetic testing, and case studies. Students are asked to keep a log of their case work. There is a requirement for the total number of hours you need to log before sitting for the boards.  

To find out more information about Yale’s program: https://medicine.yale.edu/genetics/genetics/about/

What are your daily roles and what kind of patients do you work with?

Dr. Zhang works with a diverse group of patients of all ages and backgrounds. Most of whom are in the Yale hospital system and are referred to her when there is a suspected genetic mutation or disease. She oversees the clinical testing lab that runs genetic assays, analyzes the data, and determines diagnoses. Dr. Zhang follows cases from start to finish and signs off on the final diagnosis. Although Dr. Zhang no longer works in the lab, she stays up to date with the stream of new technologies and tools for analyzing sequencing results. 

Are there other things to know about the job?

Dr. Zhang had some final comments about being a Clinical Geneticist. 

  1. It is important to always have a positive attitude. Being a Clinical Geneticist can be a stressful and demanding job. Keeping a good work ethic and positive attitude will help you stay focused and motivated.
  2. Boredom is not part of the job description. This career motivates you to continue studying in order to keep up with the rapidly evolving Genetics field. Dr. Zhang said she is constantly reading new reports and scientific literature. 
  3. You may not have all the answers. Sometimes a Clinical Geneticist might be dealing with mutations or variants of unknow significance. Genetic testing does not always reveal the complete story and there will be times when you cannot make a firm diagnosis. However, even if this occurs, more often than not, patients tend to be happy to receive more information about their underlying condition. 
  4. One of the most important lessons of the job is to be responsible for the decisions you make. As a clinical geneticist you are responsible for determining the final call on genetic diagnoses and to do so, you may be tasked with leading a team. Although uncertainty definitely exists in the field, it is important to know how to make a decision with the information you have at the time. 

Are there other similar careers you can do with a PhD? 

Dr. Zhang said that she works closely with many PhD scientists and genetic counselors. There are many roles active in the diagnostic lab, individuals with expertise in genetics can conduct experiments that support Clinical Geneticists or counsel patients on their diagnostic findings. The field of genetic testing and studying gene disorders will most likely expand in the future as technology improves. Therefore, new career opportunities will emerge as scientists continue to discover and treat genetic conditions.

Thank you for reading and check back for more career information

Written by Dominique Martin

Edited by Britt Knight

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