Q&A with a Geneticist

Dr. Teena Koshy is a senior lecturer at the Department of Human Genetics in Sri Ramachandra University. She teaches Prenatal Genetic Diagnosis and Cytogenetics and handles diagnostic laboratory operations in the department. She is very passionate about her work in the laboratory. She has reported results on thousands of cases and has worked with a number of clinicians. She is also an active researcher and has over 15 publications to her credit. She is available as a mentor with Careers Infinite.  

The DNA double helix

The DNA double helix

Can you briefly describe your career path for us?

A karyotype (female ): the arrangement of the 46 human chromosomes for genetic analysis

A karyotype (female ): the arrangement of the 46 human chromosomes for genetic analysis

I finished my Masters in Human Genetics and started my career as a Cytogeneticist at Manipal University. I was hired as a temporary replacement for someone who went on leave. It was a wonderful opportunity and I worked very hard to gain as much experience as I could. Thankfully, my boss noticed my hard work and hired me full-time. Soon after, I got an opportunity to do diagnostic work as well as teach, which I have been doing for the past twelve years.

A very important part of my work has been the initiation of prenatal diagnostics at the university medical center. It was a steady progress over one and a half years before we could establish the diagnostic procedures.

What drove you to choose a career in Genetics?

I was very good at Prenatal Genetics. As a student, it was my favorite subject. I am generally inspired by the application part of a subject. I loved the practical classes in Cytogenetics. And that’s what motivated me to continue learning more.

What is your plan for the future?

Based on my work so far, I could become a lab director, supervising diagnostics. I think that would be an ideal position for me, but after a few years. The early part of my career was driven by my thirst for knowledge and work experience. Now, I am at a point where I have to look for opportunities to leverage my skills and offer my services to young labs that need guidance to get up and running.

Considering that this is a dynamic field with technologies evolving every day, there is a huge need for experienced Cytogeneticists to help the establishment of new labs. Among clinicians, there is an increasing need for genetic diagnosis in the areas of cancer and prenatal care.

How many years would a high school student have to consider putting in, to settle down in this field?

Ideally, one can settle down in about 9 to 10 years after passing out from school; if every things goes well. But, practically speaking, it may take up to 12 or 13 years to establish oneself and winning the trust of clinicians to send cases for analysis. It may be shorter if they start working immediately after a Masters. But, it may be difficult to get up the ladder without a doctorate.

Flourescence in situ hybridization: a diagnostic method to identify genetic abnormalities.

Flourescence in situ hybridization: a diagnostic method to identify genetic abnormalities.

What, in your opinion, are the three most important skill sets that you had to develop, outside of academics, in your career?

From my experience, the first thing is laboratory skills. We don’t really learn enough when we perform an experiment in class or in the exams. A lot has gone into making that experiment work perfectly for us as students. But, when you perform the experiments on a daily basis, a number of things can go wrong, and most of the time, your troubleshooting solutions are not explained in any textbook.

The second is learning a lot of clinical genetics through working with physicians and seeing patients on a daily basis.

The third is management skills: management of laboratory operations, consumable purchase, equipment maintenance, and people. These are skills I learned on the job, and they have made me a better and stronger professional.

What are some of the challenges women may face in a career like yours?

One of the biggest challenges for women is adjusting culturally. I have observed that the work environment, in India, is still very conservative. People don’t distinguish between the professional and personal aspects of an individual. And when one does not personally conform to societal norms, the society automatically questions their professional credibility. Women especially have to constantly try to break that orthodoxy. As it is, as women, we have to fight a lot harder to establish our credibility.

Does your career offer you a good work-life balance?

It is a matter of one’s personality. My job would have offered me a good work-life balance, had I stuck to my work timings. But, I chose to do extra work and work after hours, which have largely helped me grow technically stronger. I have no regrets about it. Again, it was my personal choice.

What is your advice to students who aspire to take up Cytogenetics?

One has to be prepared to work hard. I don’t mean to sound intimidating. But the hard work is certainly rewarding. I know a lot of Cytogeneticists, including myself, who are very passionate about the subject. Also, it is always a good idea to take advice from experienced mentors. I am speaking from my personal experience. Until my mentor showed me the way, I had no idea in which direction to head. I have been lucky to have a number of supportive mentors throughout my career. It is especially important in the early stages of our careers because when we come out of school, most of us are pretty clueless about what we want to do. We go with the advice of parents or just do what our friends do. It really helps to listen to an unbiased third person who can objectively analyze our strengths and suggest ways forward.

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