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What it's like to be a geneticist

July 14, 2014, 9:15 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 1476

By marilynwarburton

A geneticist tries to explain why a living being is the way it is and how it is related to other living beings.  It is a wonderful puzzle, and one of the best parts about the puzzle is that there are so many layers to it.  If you figure out the answer to the first part of the puzzle, you uncover enough new questions to keep you happily occupied for the rest of your career!  I am a plant geneticist, but at the level of DNA, it is all very similar, no matter what organism you are working with.  To me, genetics is a very specific way of looking at the world. There are rules, which everyone and every living thing follows, and you can predict outcomes from the level of the cell up to the level of entire populations.  When the data do not come out as expected from the rules, you can always find out why, if you just listen to what the data is telling you.  

Marilyn Waburton.jpg

I ended up in the position I am in both by following my interests and by complete random chance.  I actually started my undergraduate career as a pre-veterinary major, but by the end of my sophomore year I was very firmly in the field of crop genetics.  I had a wonderfully inspirational introductory plant science professor, and he was so excited and passionate about plants, it made me look at them with a new pair of eyes.  Rather than the sedentary, inactive green lumps I had been seeing them as, I began to understand that they were amazing biochemical reactors that are exceedingly sensitive and reactive to the environment around them.  True, most of the action is happening at the cellular level, or very slowly, so you cannot perceive it when you simply look at a plant. But with patience and the proper tools, the extent of what a plant is actually doing is illuminated.

When I took my first genetics class, I had my second eye-opening experience.  While most students were struggling to grasp some of the concepts, I felt as if someone had handed me the key to understanding the world.  Suddenly there was a whole new language for describing life, one whose vocabulary and grammar were intuitive to me.  It was very exciting just to work through the examples and problems in our text book; I understood that applying genetics tools to new problems to which we didn’t already know the answer was going to be even better.  Even knowing this, I did not consider graduate school until one of my professors asked me to apply to his group, ensuring that I would be able to start applying genetics to my own original research questions.  And that is what I have been doing ever since!

The joy of learning is a pretty good reason for being a geneticist.  The joy of teaching has also been a happy discovery for me; I have had some really wonderful students who will probably go on to do important work in the field.  There have been other joys: the joys of meeting like minds at conferences, and spending hours happily chatting about work.  Beer is usually a good lubrication to the flow of ideas (although some ideas don’t look as good in retrospect as they did in the moment).  The joys of extensive international travel is a true gift, getting to see some really fascinating places, and meet the most interesting and admirable people.  The joys of being paid pretty well and achieving a great deal of independence! But I just love my work: the hands on part, the thinking-about-it part, the looking-back-and-seeing-what-we-have-accomplished part.

One frustration to being a corn geneticist is the usual speed with which the work moves.  You may have a good idea but then have to wait years to set up the proper experiment to test it!  You may need four or five generations to create the right crosses between different corn plants before you get to the point of being able to test things; for corn, this can take two to four years. Of course, it was much worse when I was in graduate school, working with peach trees, where the generation times were two or three years each!  I could work with bacteria or even viruses and set up evolution in a test tube, watching thousands of generations pass in a few weeks.  However, my work with corn generally has a more immediate practical benefit, because it is very applied research.  Although basic research is very necessary to advance science, I enjoy seeing a more immediate impact.

It takes a lot of years of study to get to the highest level of absolute fun in genetics, which requires a wider knowledge base, a deeper understanding, and therefore, probably graduate school. If you are enjoying what you are doing, it is not a difficult undertaking.  The pay is not great, but the time goes quite quickly due to the freedom and interaction of the academic environment.  I always tell potential students not to think about how many years until school is over. Because, of course, if you do get through a masters and PhD degree, you are probably going to want to postdoc for a few more years! Just find a project that is interesting to you.  Make sure you get along with your advisors.  And have a ball!

If someone were to consider becoming a geneticist solely for the remuneration, I would have to tell them: don’t even bother! The pay is good, but there are many more highly paid jobs if this is what you are motivated by.  More importantly, I have taught several undergraduate genetics courses, and many people were not “getting it” and it was very upsetting for them because they were good students in general.  Genetics is a very specific way of looking at problems, and at the world, and if you do not get it, it is difficult and not a lot of fun. If you do, however, everything seems to fall into place and make sense!

If I suddenly won the lottery, would I keep working at my job as geneticist? Of course!  I feel like one of the luckiest people on earth: I get paid to do a job I would actually do for free. The work challenges and interests in ways that keep me wanting to continue a project, even when I don’t feel we are making progress as quickly as I would like. I find myself thinking about work at odd times during the day, and I mean this in a good way. I mull over problems, solutions or ideas will come to me while I am walking the dog or in the shower, and I get all excited about my job all over again.  In addition, by working with crop plants, I know I am helping people everywhere.  Because crop geneticists seek to grow more (and more nutritious) food in ways that are better for the environment and easier for the farmer, we know we are helping at many different levels. 

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