(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Dr. Patricia Crotwell of the Sanford Cytogenetics Laboratory.)
1) What is your non-academic job?
I am the director of a clinical cytogenetics laboratory. In the lab, we
culture prenatal (amniocytes, chorionic villi) and postnatal (blood,
solid tissue, bone marrow) specimens for chromosome studies. The lab is
not a research-focused lab. Instead, we used established practices to
ensure reliable, accurate results for the patients and the providers who
order the tests. Patients range from adults with cancer to children
with congenital heart defects to women who are pregnant who want or need
information about the baby they carry, among many others. We do not
typically see patients in the lab, instead, we see and work with the
specimen that was collected from the patient.
2) What is your science background?
I have a BS and MS in Marine Biology (now a hobby), a PhD in Biology,
and completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in Clinical
Cytogenetics. To be a lab director in Cytogenetics or Molecular
Genetics, either a PhD or an MD (or both) degree is required. To work
*in* a lab like this, technologists typically need a BS, often in
Biology or a similar field. Training and experience are always
preferred, but in a small state like South Dakota, we often have to
train our technologists from scratch.
3) What led you to this job?
I came to this position in a round-about way. I studied marine biology
as an undergrad and MS student. My PhD was in biology, where I worked
on the development of the skeleton. The fish skeleton, that is. But
there is a huge amount of overlap with the human skeleton, since the
gene networks that drive development are highly conserved across the
animal kingdom. Many of the genes I worked on in zebrafish are involved
in well-described human skeletal dysplasias, so that is an area of
interest to me still. I was asked by the former director of this lab if
I'd be interested in taking over the lab when she retired. I enjoy the
work, and the people I work with are wonderful. Overall, it was a lot
of work to get here, with some timely luck thrown in.
4) What's your work environment like?
The lab is a few interconnected rooms, which are devoted to tissue
culture (sterile technique required), slide preparation and microscopy,
and computer analysis. A good technologist can move from doing bench
work to the microscope to the computer, and back, with pauses to answer
the phone as necessary. We get all sorts of phone calls, and see all
sorts of things at the 'scope. Not everyone is suited for lab work, but
in my lab, we all feel fortunate that we work well together and enjoy
what we do.
5) What do you do in a typical day?
I write up and sign out cases, attend meetings, read cases at the
microscope, ensure that the lab remains compliant with state and federal
regulations, discuss abnormal results with pathologists, geneticists,
genetic counselors, etc., and cover the lab when the technologists are
out for lunch, among other things. I do not do very much bench work
these days, but the technologists do, from setting up specimens to
harvesting them, preparing the slides, etc. A typical day also involved
preparing and validating solutions, and even autoclaving biohazards (all
human specimens are considered to be biohazards) so that they can be
disposed of safely.
6) How does your science background help you in your job?
A strong foundation in science impacts every part of my day. From
writing a clear and understandable description of an abnormal result, to
preparing a 10% solution for use in tissue culture, I use what I learned
in classes ranging from chemistry 101 to biochemical genetics daily.
Also of great use are the research skills I picked up over the years!
Google is helpful, but knowing how to use other information databases is
important as well.
7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?
First decide if you'd like to run a lab, which requires a PhD or an MD,
or if you'd like to work in one. Touring a lab is a way to see a lab
and its people in action, to get an idea if it is something that appeals
to you. Lab work often requires close attention to detail, and precise
methods. If that seems constraining or boring, lab work might not be
for you . . . There are training programs for cytogenetic technologists.
Try http://www.mayo.edu/mshs/cytogen-career.html or
8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?
Question everything. It is the people who ask questions such as "But
how do you know that?" or "How does that work?" or "Why is that so?"
that have made differences large and small in our understanding of the
world around us. Critical thinking skills are important to your success
in science, regardless of your field. I also learned 'don't give up!',
which was and is very important when I encounter obstacles.
9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
Be flexible! I of course respect people who decide on their course in
life early, and stick to it to the end of a long and productive career.
However, as much as I love marine biology, it was not a career that
actually suited me. I would never have dreamed when I was an
undergraduate student that working in a lab would be so satisfying,
fascinating, and productive.
10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?
Cytogenetic technologists (BS, some MS, and occasional BA) make ~30K to
50K, with an average of ~42K. Lab Directors (PhD and MD) make ~80K to
160K+, with an average of ~120K, and with MDs making more than PhDs in
I should mention that having a helpful and dedicated PhD advisor made a big difference for me as well. She is how I first found out about the lab!