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My job explained: Clinical scientist

The fight against disease takes place as much in laboratories as on the wards. Read on as Sam Holman explains how she puts her scientific knowledge to the test as a clinical scientist in genetics.

Can you tell us a bit about your job?

My role involves analysing referred patients’ samples – that can be blood, bone marrow, amniotic fluid, chorionic villi, skin or lymph nodes – to determine if there are any genetic changes in their chromosomes or DNA which may provide a reason for their referral. This information then needs to be interpreted, the implications considered and a report written back to the referring professional. It requires a high attention to detail, but within a relatively short timescale. Methods change as technology develops, meaning you need to be adaptable to learn about and apply new technologies to diseases.

What qualifications and training do you have?

I have a science honours degree and two professional qualifications. There is a national training programme which trains you in almost everything which has to be completed before you apply for registration. There is also another exam to gain membership of the Royal College of Pathologists which some scientists complete.

What was the training like?

The training is thorough and challenging as you are working as well. However you do get to rotate through the entire repertoire of the tests available. There are exams and coursework as the newest training scheme gains you an MSc as well as vocational training.

What other skills do you need?

You need an attention to detail, the ability to be thorough and present your findings in a coherent way. While the actual analysis is a solitary process, you need to be able to work as part of a team with good communication skills as well, and have the ability to work well under pressure and to interpret information in an accurate and precise manner.

Why did you choose to go into clinical science?

It was the opportunity to be a scientist producing results that would mean something to real people. Diagnostic science is much more about team working than research where you need to keep things to yourself. Also genetics undergoes massive changes with the advent of new technology, and keeping up with these changes is challenging but interesting.

What’s a typical working day like?

There isn't really a typical day: it all depends what you find when analysing a case. Some cases can be complete quite quickly, while in some others the interpretation and working out the implications to the patient and their family can take a long time, depending whether anyone else has seen the change you've found before.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Team work and getting a result that makes a difference to someone. Sometimes our work will determine what cancer treatment a patient gets, which can mean they get given good news about their prognosis.

What’s the worst thing about your job?

Finding results that have catastrophic implications to the patient, and sometimes the workload and pressures to get the work processed can seem overwhelming.

What advice would you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Get some work experience wherever possible and study hard. It’s a very competitive field and be prepared to move around the country to achieve your goals.

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