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DNA, the Human Genome Project, genetically modified foods, RNA . . . these words have been popping up in our everyday vocabularies. Yet what do these genetic terms mean? Genetics is basically the scientific study of the mechanisms of heredity. Geneticists believe that a chain of molecules connects each of us with the first living organisms that arose on the earth billions of years ago. Therefore, people are all connected biologically in some form or another. Yet interestingly, all humans have individual characteristics that distinguish them from one another.

Geneticists conduct research into the biochemical and physiological aspects of heredity, particularly the role of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and carry out molecular tests to aid in diagnosing disease. Research geneticists may specialize in many different areas, including biomedical genetics, developmental genetics, biochemical and molecular genetics, forensics, plant and animal genetics or population genetics.

Genetics has made many important breakthroughs in medicine. It is the basis for understanding the inheritance of genetic diseases, for providing counseling to families who are at risk of having children with life-threatening genetic defects, and for scientific investigations seeking to understand the molecular basis of genetic disease and to effect its cure. In agriculture, genetics is the basis of breeding new crop plants and livestock. In courtrooms, genetic forensics has helped detectives and lawyers solve important crimes based on DNA samples. Another rapidly growing industry using genetics to produce a range of products from pharmaceuticals to microchips is the biotechnology industry.

Medical geneticists study the causes and treatment of human genetic conditions. They may be directly involved in patient care, including prenatal diagnosis for genetic diseases and genetic counseling. Under the supervision of medical geneticists, genetic counselors obtain family histories and hospital records, and provide advice regarding the risks involved in some genetic situations.

Some geneticists work as counselors providing information and support to families who have members with birth defects or genetic disorders, such as Down Syndrome, and to families and individuals who may be at risk for a variety of inherited conditions. They identify families at risk, investigate the problem, interpret information about the disorder, analyze inheritance patterns and risks of recurrence, and review available options with the family or individual. Genetic counselors also provide supportive counseling, serve as patient advocates and refer individuals and families to community or government support services.

There are many critics of genetics and many of the experiments performed by geneticists that question people's medical ethics. For example, many fear that people will begin to have children based on genetic selection, meaning, that a family may be more likely to abort a fetus on the basis that it will be born with a defect. Critics fear that this genetic practice would create an Orwellian society, in the sense that geneticists are playing "God" and that we can choose who should be born and who should not However, there are a number of genetic birth defects, such as Tay-Sachs disease that have 100 percent child death rates and if a Tay-Sachs birth can be prevented, then innocent children would not have to suffer. This debate is not expected to be settled soon, however it is important to understand both sides of the issue.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Geneticists must possess a genuine interest in chemistry and biology. They have the ability to pay close attention to detail, and have a willingness to do new readings required to keep them abreast of new developments and discoveries. Geneticists must also be willing to work with animals (both invertebrate and vertebrate).

Successful geneticists enjoy synthesizing information, finding innovative solutions to problems, using sophisticated instruments and equipment to perform tasks requiring precision, and supervising the work of others.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Study normal and abnormal biochemistry caused by genetic factors including the diagnosis and treatment of biochemical genetic conditions
  • Study the genetic control of cells and the processes by which they proliferate, either normally or abnormally to form multi-cellular organisms
  • Study the basis of gene activity, transmission and mutation, including the manipulation of the genes
  • Research plants and animals to help improve human services, like improved crop yields or pest resistance
  • Study natural variation and the processes of inheritance and evolution within populations of organisms
  • Geneticists work in a laboratory environment with hazardous substances such as chemicals and radioactive materials. Work hours could get long, depending on what research project one is working on. They sometimes work evenings and weekends to complete experiments.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Geneticists work in both the public and private sectors. They are employed by universities, government departments, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, agribusiness companies, and biotechnology companies. Some geneticists may also be self-employed.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Graduates of bachelor's degree programs in genetics or biochemistry may work as genetics technicians. Those with master's degrees may work in high level technical positions or as genetic counselors. In most cases, a PhD is required to work as an independent researcher and/or teach at the university level. Some geneticists may open up their own independent research, consulting and counselling centers. Other geneticists may move into other microbiology fields and change the focus of their research.

  Educational Paths  
The minimum education requirement for a geneticist is advanced degrees in genetics. Most begin their university studies by taking a four-year Bachelor of Science degree program, followed by a master's and PhD in genetics, or an MD degree followed by speciality training and further study in a genetics program.

Due to the complexity of this field, it is required that all geneticists be highly educated and trained in conducting laboratory experiments.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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