I fell in love with genetics in college. That’s also where I discovered lab work was not my passion. I could never get comfortable looking through the microscope, I hate wearing gloves, and I’m much more chatty than a lot of my lab partners were. I chose to become a genetic counselor in part because it would take me to the clinic, not the lab bench. Ironically, I ended up in the lab a decade later anyway. 

My Role in the Lab

I work for a large health organization that has its own genetic laboratory. Our lab is a modest size and our test menu mostly focuses on commonly ordered genetic tests. But, as I’ve written before, geneticists are specialists in finding rare things. That means that a lot of the tests they order are not on our standard menu. I help those providers find and order the tests they need, even if it means sending it to a lab far, far away.

Samples and Puzzles

I usually start my day at the bench (yes, with those annoying gloves), reviewing the specimens that have come in for a test we don’t perform in-house. Most of them arrive with clear orders and completed paperwork, so those are packaged up and sent on their way to another lab. Sometimes they’re missing some documentation or forms, which is easy enough to fix and get shipped out. The ones that remain become my puzzle to work out for the day. I call them my “problem children.” Yes, I anthropomorphize genetic testing orders. The “children” and I go back to my office, while the specimens, gloves, and lab coat stay behind.

The puzzle solving is where my genetics training and clinical experience come into play. I find labs all over the country (and sometimes in other countries) that perform testing for very rare conditions. I sometimes borderline-beg labs to accept weird sample types (a 10 year old tumor sample? Pretty please?). I make suggestions to the providers to change their orders to a more effective, comprehensive, or targeted test depending on the clinical history. I catch errors or omissions (usually from people filling out forms too fast). I sometimes save thousands of dollars by finding the same test at a more cost-effective lab (Very satisfying. Fist pumps ensue). 

The Counselor’s Counselor

Though I don’t see patients anymore, I still interact with people all day. Besides our great team in the lab, I also field phone calls, emails, and chat messages from our physicians and genetic counselors. Many have logistical questions about how to make sure a test gets performed correctly. Others need advice about what test is best to order. Some just need to talk through or vent about a tough case. I’m now the counselor’s counselor; helping them make informed decisions about testing, or just being there to listen. In that way, I still put my GC skills to use, and have made some good friends along the way. 

The microscope and I are still not good friends, but lab life has turned out to be a good fit after all.