Dr Hayley Lees – Clinical Genetics Scientist in the NHS

Tell me a little bit about your role as a clinical geneticist…

 As a Clinical Genetics Scientist in the NHS, I work as a member of a multidisciplinary team consisting of Clinical Genetics Doctors, Genetic Counsellors, Specialist Nurses, Genetic Technologists and Bioinformaticians.  Together, we are involved in the care of patients and their relatives who have been affected by genetically inherited or acquired conditions.  My role is to select the appropriate diagnostic test(s) that will facilitate the identification of the pathogenic variant responsible, thus allowing us to devise a suitable disease management plan.  I have found that the interpretation of the often complex results these tests yield is both a fascinating and enjoyable process, as it involves a considerable “puzzle element”, testing both your knowledge and ingenuity.  While genetic technologists perform the ‘wet lab’ work, Clinical Scientists are primarily computer-based and responsible for directly informing clinicians of the genetic diagnosis results, so that they can then best manage patients and their families.

What led you to your career in as a clinical geneticist?

During my time as a postdoc, I realised that aiming for a group leader position was not something I wanted to do.  However, I was faced with the reality that it is generally not possible to remain a postdoc for life and left wondering how I could satisfy my scientific curiosity while also making a difference in some way.  A fortuitous discussion over coffee with a research colleague, who had also been medically trained as a Clinical Geneticist, made me aware of the Scientist Training Programme (STP).  This is an accredited, three-year ‘on the job’ training scheme which – upon successful completion of work-based assessments and a fully-funded Master’s degree – allows you to register with the Health and Care Professions Council, so that you can practice as a Clinical Scientist (which is a protected title).

Do you feel as though your postgraduate degree has provided you with skills and expertise you now use in your current profession that you otherwise would not have developed?  If so, what are they?

Absolutely!  Although I am no longer based in the lab (for the most part), undertaking research in an academic setting has equipped me with the ability to troubleshoot and innovate, critically appraise research, distil information into the most crucial points, and communicate my findings to clinicians and other healthcare professionals effectively and confidently.  It has also sharpened my observation skills – attention to detail is crucial in my job!  Finally, a benefit of having done a PhD/postdoc is the connections I have made in academia.  Knowing who to contact for expert advice goes a long way.

What would you like current postgraduates to know about the career paths they could possibly take?

Try to talk to as many people as you can – in your department, at conferences, in the pub.  This can expose you to career paths suitable for bioscientists that are otherwise not widely advertised at career events.  Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can’t be a scientist outside of academia or industry, and don’t be afraid to make the leap into something new.  We are a scientists – venturing into the unknown is what we are good at!