WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: A SPOTLIGHT ON WOMEN IN GENETIC TESTING
Women have made significant contributions to the genetic testing industry since the early days of the field and are having a major impact today at Baylor Genetics. In the 1950s and 1960s, Rosalind Franklin, a British biophysicist, conducted groundbreaking research on the structure of DNA using X-ray crystallography. Although she did not receive full recognition for her work during her lifetime, her findings were instrumental in shaping our understanding of genetics and paved the way for later discoveries in the field.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Mary-Claire King, an American geneticist, conducted pioneering research on the BRCA1 gene, which is associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Her work helped to lay the foundation for genetic testing and personalized medicine, which has led to significant advancements in cancer prevention and treatment.
More recently, women have played important roles in the development and implementation of new genetic testing technologies. Dr. Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist, was one of the pioneers of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, a technique that has revolutionized the field of genetics and holds enormous promise for treating genetic diseases.
Overall, women have played critical roles in advancing our understanding of genetics and developing new genetic testing technologies. Their contributions have had a profound impact on the field of medicine and have helped to improve the lives of countless individuals and families affected by genetic conditions.
MEET THE WOMEN OF BAYLOR GENETICS
A few of our esteemed female colleagues recently shared their insights into what brought them to their careers in genetics and what their experiences have been:
- Christine M. Eng, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Quality Officer
- Christina Settler, MS, Vice President, Medical Affairs
- Janice Smith, Ph.D., Sr. Clinical Director, Cytogenetics
- Linyan Meng, Ph.D., Sr. Division Director, NGS/Molecular/CGI
- Patricia Ward, MS, CGC, Genetic Counselor
Can you tell us a little bit about what attracted you to the genetic testing field?
Dr. Eng: After medical school, I did a pediatric residency and then a fellowship in medical genetics. I spent two years doing lab bench research in genetics, which led me to the field of genetic testing. This interested me because genetic testing was taking off at that time, spurred by the advent of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. Genetic testing appeals to me because it marries several important areas: clinical expertise, research training, and genetic diagnostics.
Christina Settler, MS: I first learned about the field of genetics and genetic counseling back in high school when I took a course on biotechnology. Our instructor shared a booklet called “Careers in Genetics” published by the National Society of Genetic Counselors. When I read about genetic counseling, I knew immediately it was the perfect choice, combining two of my passions – science and helping people. From then on, I set my educational path to becoming a genetic counselor.
Dr. Smith: I first became interested in genetics in high school biology, when we spent two weeks of the year focusing on human genetics and learning about Punnett squares. When I went to college, I majored in biology. My plan was to go to medical school after, but senior year, my advisors gave a talk on cytogenetics, and it seemed like an area with lots of potential. Following my bachelor’s degree, I applied to the graduate program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to study cytogenetics under the mentorship of Drs. Wayne and Sara Finley.
Dr. Meng: I initially got interested in genetics through research on imprinting during college. I later entered the PhD lab at Baylor College of Medicine, where I started exploring genetic diseases. I attended conferences and got a chance to meet patients and their parents, which was a unique experience that made me even more passionate about the field after seeing how the disease has changed their lives and families. This made me interested in a career path in genetic testing.
Patricia Ward, MS, CGC: After working in a research laboratory for four years, I discovered the profession of genetic counseling. Investigating an animal model for inherited retinal dystrophy stimulated my interest in genetics. Genetic counseling perfectly combined this interest with my desire to educate and support patients and healthcare professionals about genetic diseases.
What obstacles have you faced in your career, and how have you overcome them?
Dr. Eng: There was a time when I was quite well-established at a medical center in NYC where I had been working for over a decade. Then my husband took a job in Houston, and we relocated with our two young children. This wasn’t the career path I expected, but I got the opportunity to come to Baylor Genetics, the no. 1 genetics lab in the country. Ultimately, this opened a lot of new doors and turned out for the best, but thinking back on this time reminds me that sometimes we need to be open-minded and flexible in our career trajectory.
Settler: Fighting for a seat at the table is one obstacle I’ve encountered every place I’ve been, some more so than others. Learning to demonstrate clinical value and expertise in the corporate world has been a steep learning curve. Some Medical Affairs contributions are readily evident, but many of our tasks are often done quietly behind the scenes. When you are in charge of establishing and then growing new departments in an organization, it is important to communicate and demonstrate their value, expertise, and contributions. I like to think each time I get better at it, but it continues to be a challenge.
Dr. Smith: I’ve been fortunate not to have encountered too many career obstacles. When I started genetics in the late 70s/early 80s, cytogenetics was a primarily female-dominated field, so I had a lot of support and strong mentors. One obstacle that comes to mind was when the wet lab in Houston, where I had worked through two changes of ownership, closed. But I was invited to come to Baylor Genetics. So, it all worked out well.
Dr. Meng: When I started a management position, I was initially a little overwhelmed by all the new work that I was assigned. But I learned a lot about how to manage my time efficiently and work collaboratively with different teams and people.
Ward: My children were born before the enactment of the Family [and Medical] Leave Act of 1993. I experienced discrimination during my first maternity leave when I was questioned repeatedly about my stated intent to return to my position. I overcame this by honestly discussing this treatment with my supervisor, who provided assurance that this was improper and would cease.
What career accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?
Dr. Eng: The introduction of Whole Exome Sequencing (WES) at Baylor Genetics was a huge accomplishment not just for me personally, but for the whole laboratory. It’s inspiring that what started as a research tool developed into a clinical test and has now become the standard of care for rare disease patients. Before that, the Baylor Genetics team made a lot of progress with chromosomal microarray analysis (CMA), and later with Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS). We all went through the transition together of our lab from academic, to hybrid commercial/academic, but we stayed true to our core values of helping patients and providing the best service in a fast-paced setting without compromising quality.
Settler: In 2012, when I transitioned from direct care of patients to working for a laboratory, I joined the team that helped introduce and implement cell-free DNA testing for aneuploidy. I was part of creating access to more sensitive screening for all pregnant people. During the 11 years since, I have built genetic counseling and medical affairs departments at three different laboratories – Sequenom, Progenity,Inc., and now at Baylor Genetics. Building and mentoring diverse teams of amazing and dedicated professionals who understand that protecting patients is paramount — and watching my team members in turn teach others the same — is the accomplishment I’m most proud of.
Dr. Smith: Over the course of my career, it’s been exciting to see the advancements in areas such as fluorescence in situ hybridization, chromosomal microarray, and optical genome mapping. Baylor College of Medicine and now Baylor Genetics always keeps me in awe of how at the forefront of innovation the lab is. The team here always keeps the interest of the patient first, and cares so much about offering high-quality genetic results.
Dr. Meng: I’m so Impressed by the ability of Baylor Genetics’ lab to expand over the years. Our whole team worked together to increase capacity. It would have been hard to imagine five years ago that we would be able to test thousands of cases a week now. Making that happen was truly a team effort. Doing it little by little in small increments equaled dramatic change.
Ward: In 1985, after five years as a clinical genetic counselor, I had the opportunity to expand my practice and develop a new yet undefined professional role as a laboratory genetic counselor. I am proud to have contributed to defining this role and training other laboratory genetic counselors, and there are now hundreds of lab genetic counselors providing services to professional clients around the U.S. and worldwide.
Is there a female historical figure who has inspired you, and why?
Christina Settler, MS: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was always a leader who inspired so many to do the right thing, not because it was the easy way forward, but because it was the right way forward. She once said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” In science and patient care, we must always choose the right way forward.
Dr. Smith: Two women and mentors in the cytogenetics field who inspired me personally were my grad school and postdoctoral advisors.
Patricia Ward, MS, CGC: The genetic counseling profession has a relatively short history beginning in 1971. Until the mid-1980s, there were very few graduate programs in the U.S., so there were a relatively small number of practicing genetic counselors. These pioneer genetic counselors were mostly female. They were extremely generous and willing to share their successes and challenges, inspiring me and others new to the profession to take on more responsibility and expand into new roles.
What advice would you give to other women interested in careers in genetic testing or other areas of STEM?
Dr. Eng: Don’t hesitate because of the long educational and post-doctorate path; trust the process and get the training. In your first real position, even with training, it can be a shock, but the process has proven successful.
Settler: Go for it! There is so much good that can come from diversity in STEM fields, and so many exciting things to learn and contributions yet to be made.
Dr. Smith: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it!
Ward: That genetic counseling/testing involves a unique educational experience. It sets us apart from others within the genetics healthcare team and provides an opportunity for us to have a strong voice within any organization.
PAVING THE PATH FOR WOMEN IN STEM
Today, the genetic testing field is experiencing exponential growth, diversification, and opportunity. Baylor Genetics is proud to build on the legacy of the women in genetics who have come before us; to nurture the passion and learn from the expertise of our female colleagues, and to create career opportunities for the next generation of women in STEM.