Sarah Clinton always knew she wanted to work in science. However, it was only when she spent her first sessions in the genetics lab at Staffordshire University that she set her sights on a career in genetics.
Sarah went straight from her degree in Molecular Biology to a job as a Medical Technical Officer at the West Midlands Regional Genetics Laboratory. After progressing to roles as Senior Genetic Technologist and Pre-registration Clinical Scientist, Sarah is now a Training Manager, responsible for leading and organising professional development, facilitating training in the workplace and speaking at events in the genetics field.
An early love of Science
“When I did my A Levels, I always knew I wanted to study science at university. I chose Staffordshire University because I really liked the combination of the practical work in the labs and the ‘doing’ aspect of the course. I learn best by doing, and this really suited me.
I really enjoyed the course, but when I started the Genes and Genomes module and started lab time with Harry Mountain, that’s when I was really taken with the subject. It was Harry’s enthusiasm for Genetics and his career path which cemented my ambition to work in the field of genetics. My final year project was lab-based with Harry. I loved the experience of being in the lab. I was just as interested in the work others were doing alongside me, as I was in my own work. It was a great opportunity to be around others in the lab and learn from them.
My first lab role
A few months after I left university, I started a job as a Medical Technical Officer (now known as a Genetic Technologist) at the West Midlands Regional Laboratory and I absolutely loved it. For the first two years I was like a sponge, soaking up everything going on around me, learning from everyone in the lab and getting to know the processes. My role was to check in samples, triage, extracting DNA/RNA and perform genetic testing. My two main areas of work were molecular Pre-natal diagnosis and Haemato-Oncology testing at diagnosis and the ongoing monitoring.
I took every opportunity to learn and undertake continuous professional development (CPD) – and I started to lead in the lab in other areas.
How my medical career progressed
In 2008 I became a Senior Genetic Technologist, running different areas of the laboratory and overseeing the training and line management of graduates and other staff.
In this role I also started to get involved in the training and quality groups of the lab, as well as developing and enhancing new testing procedures. I was also asked to present to a national conference for genetic technologists, which I really enjoyed.
When I returned from a second round of maternity leave in 2015, I was promoted to a pre-registration clinical scientist post. This was mainly based in the cancer side of the lab working on inherited gastric cancer and breast cancers. I really enjoyed this role obviously because it is important, potentially life-saving work, and because, after many years of working in the lab, I was now the one analysing the results and writing the patient reports. I’d always wanted to be a scientist and write scientific reports, and now I was really doing it.
I have continued to learn and progress in my career since then – and I’m now working as the Training Manager for the West Midlands Regional Genetics Laboratory. My role is to make sure everyone has the right support for their role. I facilitate national training programmes and support all-staff development – whether that’s through CPD, delivering training or seeking further opportunities to learn.
I am also lucky enough to do a great deal of engagement work with those wishing to work in genetics but also with the wider public at local STEM events.
Finding my niche
There is a lot going on in the world of genetics and now genomics is coming more into mainstream medicine. Next month I’ll start studying a Master’s in Education. This will help me in my role as Training Manager to support a workforce which needs to adapt rapidly to Genomics and to ensure that our training is to the best standard. It’s important to us to have this, so that our staff then offer the best service to our patients. That’s what we’re here for.
Just recently I found myself delivering a talk to all the new trainee scientists in the country, who are part of the Scientist Training Programme. This was really exciting and a great opportunity to give something back to trainees, as well as meeting other leaders in Healthcare Science education and learning from them. From here I have been invited to sit on the steering group for the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS). Again, it is great to offer my ideas and suggestions, but I will also use it as another great learning experience
Since I took on this training role it really feels like I’ve found my calling. Last year I had a sudden realisation; ‘This is how it feels…to do what you are really meant to do!’
Since then I’ve only looked forwards and I’m genuinely excited to see what happens next. I find it so fulfilling, everything seems to be moving at 100 miles an hour, and doors have opened to new opportunities.
Looking back at my time at Staffordshire University?
I’m originally from Birmingham so when I started at Staffs, I moved away from home and lived in Stoke. I had a great experience inside and outside the labs and the lecture theatres – playing hockey, captaining the first team in my final year and all the pub crawls that came with those post-match celebrations! There’s no way I could do that now.
What I loved about my time there was the flexibility in learning, and lots of lecturers and mentors to work alongside. It’s an award-winning course now, and I can certainly see why. I absorbed so much knowledge during my time there – not just academically but practically and through making contacts – and it certainly got me on the path to the career I love now.
Advice to aspiring genetic technologists
My advice to any students considering a career in genetics would be to do your research and start to think about what roles may suit you. There are a number of positions now available and starting to think about those roles and requirements will give you a great advantage.
If you want to work in a Genetics laboratory as either a Genetic Technologist or Scientist, you will want to consider taking internships, work experience/shadowing and entering at lower band roles if necessary. This will help to build your lab experience, understand how samples are processed, and understand the wider service and NHS.
Genetics is currently very competitive to get into. What makes people stand out when we are recruiting is when they have done their research into the particular lab they are applying to.
What fields of work do they specialise in? What breakthroughs have they been part of? Also, research all the different roles available in genetics and laboratory work, so you have a good idea of where your career could progress next.
Try to tune in to what you are motivated by. Looking back, one of the things I’ve always known is that I’m mostly motivated by helping others. The combination of working in the field of cancer and leukemia and then moving into training to make people my focus, has been perfect for me. Now I realise what I’m driven by, it feels right.”