So whats a genetic engineer always do? did they just sit inside the lab all day doing research everyday?
Submitted by: Joshua Kenway
Expert response from Dr. Larry Gilbertson
Ph.D, Former Genomics Strategy Lead, Bayer
Thursday, 08/31/2017 14:16
I’m a genetic engineer. I’ve spent 30 years participating as a member of teams of genetic engineers, and I love your question. Most of us do indeed spend a lot of time inside the lab, but we’re not always sitting. Sometimes we dance!
Genetic engineering starts with an idea for a way to solve a problem, so I guess it starts with an understanding of the problems. In agriculture, for example, that means spending time to understand what’s happening on farms and what challenges farmers need solved.
Once we’ve identified the problems, we brainstorm solutions. This is a favorite part of my job, standing in front of a white board with a few fellow scientists and exploring possible solutions. What gene should we use? How should we engineer it?
Once we’ve come up with some ideas about how to address the problem, then it’s time to get in the lab. During this phase, we spend the bulk of our time in the lab, cloning pieces of DNA, engineering genes, doing experiments with the genes in cells or in plants, getting the results, thinking about what the results mean, and adjusting our strategy accordingly… then doing it all again. Depending on the project, this can last weeks, months, or years. This almost always is done as part of a team of other genetic engineers, each one working on a part of the project, always communicating with each other, always coordinating their work. This means that we have to spend time in meetings, reviewing progress and planning the next steps.
So, genetic engineering does indeed involve a lot of time in the lab doing experiments, but a major shift in the last couple of decades involves the growth of big data and the emergence of data science. In fact, we’re increasingly doing our experiments “in silico,” on the computer, i.e. testing hypotheses by analyzing existing data, without setting foot in the lab. Large genetic engineering projects typically have several data scientists who are an important part of the team.
We’re constantly learning. The science of biotechnology advances quickly, so we have to spend time keeping up with the latest advances, reading the scientific journals, attending conferences, etc. I just came back, for example, from a conference on gene editing where I learned about the latest advances in that technology, so that I can think about how to use them to solve problems.
Finally, communicating about our genetic engineering, with colleagues and with the wider world, is just as important as doing it. Good genetic engineers realize that the best science in the world doesn’t matter if people don’t find it beneficial, and that means communicating our science in a way others can understand. So, we spend a lot of time talking with others, writing about what we do, engaging on social media, and occasionally answering questions on GMO Answers.
The best way to learn what a genetic engineer does is to meet one in-person and ask them to show you. Genetic engineers are just like everyone else. Some of us are outgoing. Some are more reserved. Most of us, however, are excited about our work and would be happy to show you what we do. Find your nearest genetic engineer, at a university or a company, and ask them to show you around. Many cities have community or DIY labs where anyone can learn and do the basics of genetic engineering. Another great website to get to know a scientist and have a conversation is Skype a Scientist; this is especially helpful if you’re able to host a classroom Q&A session.
Thanks for your question. If you ever get a chance to visit a genetic engineering lab, I hope they show you some dance moves there.