Field of Study: Genetics
Genetics is the study of the units of heredity known as genes. Students learn about gene organization and regulation. They study gene function and the ways genes transmit information from an organism to its offspring.
Imagine that your alphabet has only four letters, and you can create only three-letter words from it. This gives you a total possible vocabulary of only 64 words. Now, try to use those 64 words to describe how to build a human body from scratch! And, once you've done that, your next task is to shrink this incredibly detailed blueprint so that it fits into a microscopic space. Finally, work out a way of copying these instructions faithfully again and again. This is what our DNA does. With various combinations of just four chemicals, it determines how our bodies will develop and function.
Genetics is a young science. Its broadest principles have been widely known for only about 100 years. And its chemical mechanisms have been understood for only half that time. Recently, knowledge of molecular genetics has found a wide range of practical uses, from medical care to forensics to the study of ancient humans. Like many other sciences, it has become the basis of a branch of engineering. Many people believe it will trigger a new industrial revolution.
You can study genetics as an undergraduate. With four years of full-time study, you can earn a bachelor's degree. A few colleges offer this program. Like most biology majors, genetics gives you a good background in laboratory science. You study chemistry, biology, physics, and probably biochemistry. These teach you the basics of scientific research. Since most research is quantitative, you study statistics so that you can summarize data and draw conclusions from it. You study the fundamental chemical functions of cells.
It is possible to focus on either animal or human genetics when in a general genetics program. Animal genetics usually concentrates on livestock. After all, we depend on genetic improvement to produce beefier steers, cows that yield more milk, and swifter racehorses. Therefore, animal genetics might be part of animal science programs.
You can also focus on human genetics. This usually has a medical focus. Typically, you learn about the immune system and genetic factors that cause disease. You also study gene therapy. Keep in mind that in-depth study usually takes place at the graduate level, though. Genetics programs at the undergraduate level tend to be more general in nature.
No matter if you choose to specialize or not, you learn how genetics functions at the molecular level. For example, you study the DNA molecule and how it forms genes. You learn how genes control the fabrication of proteins via the messenger RNA. You study how genes become damaged and repair damage. In general, you study these topics for both humans and animals.
With a bachelor's, you may work as a technologist in a genetics laboratory. You might help develop a new generation of drugs or help prove the innocence of someone accused of a crime. The bachelor's is also good preparation for entering medical, dental, or veterinary school. Or you might want to study another branch of biology or agricultural science at the graduate level.
To work in genetics research, you need to get a graduate degree. About 50 graduate institutions offer a master's degree in genetics, and about 90 offer the doctorate. The master's usually takes about two years beyond the bachelor's. The doctorate takes about three years beyond that. You may study genetics in a graduate school of arts and sciences or as a clinical science within a medical school. You do more laboratory study of how genes function at the molecular level. You learn how genes control the development of an organism through its life stages. You also study more advanced statistics. For example, you learn principles for predicting how a gene will be distributed in a population. You usually have the chance to concentrate on the genetics of a particular group of organisms, such as field crops, livestock animals, or humans.
You add to your research skills by taking several seminars, in which you do research and present it to the group. In many programs you are also expected to do a series of lab rotations. Working in various labs exposes you to various topics and methods of research. Thus you decide where to focus your own master's or doctoral research projects and whom to choose as a faculty advisor. In a doctoral program, you undertake an original research project under the guidance of this advisor. Then, you write up your procedures and findings as your dissertation.
Most students who receive the Ph.D. in genetics want to add still more to their research credentials. They continue to learn as a postdoctoral fellow for an additional two to four years. A fellowship or part-time teaching usually supports you while you do this research.