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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Dip into the gene pool

By David Chilton
Special to The Sun

Prince Michael of Kent looks remarkably like Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. That's hardly surprising since they're related through Queen Victoria. Or put another way, both men, the Prince still very much alive, the Tsar still very much dead, share the same gene pool.
The Michener Institute for Applied Health Studies takes just 16 students for the genetics program.

This sameness, which might intrigue the casual observer, wouldn't have an equal effect on the students in the genetics technologist program at the Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences in Toronto. Their interests are far more likely to run to human chromosomes, infertility, blood, DNA "fingerprinting" and the other parts of their science found in labs.

University background

Jennifer O'Leary, a faculty member at the Michener, says the diploma program requires applicants to be a certified medical laboratory technologist with some university background in genetics or have a degree in genetics, microbiology or something similar.

Suzanne Allaire, chair, Laboratory Sciences Division the Michener, says the medical lab technologist program runs three years full time. Two of those years are spent at the Institute and the final year is completed in a hospital. Allaire says applicants to the med lab program need a high school diploma with university-level science courses, although she cautions more than 70% of her students have some university education.

Allaire says the Michener took 64 med lab students this year from almost 600 applications. They learn to prepare samples and perform diagnoses on fluids and tissue, she says, and warns the program is not easy. "You've got to be strong in science," she says.

"The (genetics technologist) program is 18 months in its entirety, from when they walk in the door until when they're finished their clinical (requirements) and are able to write their national exams," O'Leary says.
Michener Instituted

It's full time, O'Leary continues, and although there is classroom work, she says 80% of what students do is hands-on lab work. "They're learning the technology, they're applying it, they're analyzing their results."

Once the in-school September to April portion of the course is finished most students stay in Ontario to complete their clinical rotations -- one in cytogenetics and one in molecular genetics. The length of these clinical rotations is being revamped, so no fixed period has been settled yet. In the GTA, the students complete their rotations in such hospitals as Sick Kids and Mt. Sinai.

"Cytogenetics is the study or analysis of human chromosomes -- there can be other chromosomes but we're talking clinical genetics for humans," O'Leary explains. Once qualified, practitioners analyze such things as blood from babies with abnormalities, and work on the diagnosis and staging of cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma.
  • The genetics technologist program at the Michener takes just 16 students a year.
  • Competition for the med lab program at the Institute is fierce; university-educated applicants seem to be the most successful.
  • Both programs require students to complete extensive clinical placements.
  • The majority of students are women and most are in their 20s.
  • Starting pay for a genetics technologist is about $50,000 a year and up to $45,000 a year for their med lab colleagues.

  • Technologists in the molecular genetics stream employ techniques such as PCRs, a process for making large numbers of copies of a DNA sequence, provide DNA "fingerprinting" and diagnose such diseases as cystic fibrosis and Huntingdon's Disease, adds O'Leary.

    The Michener takes just 16 students for the genetics program, the majority of them in their 20s and about three-quarters of them women. Tuition for the program is about $5,100. Med lab tuition is about $2,800 a year.

    Job prospects

    Both O'Leary and Allaire say job prospects for genetics technologists and their med lab colleagues are good. Dan De Maria, who graduated this year from the genetics technologist program and works at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, says, "I found it very easy to find a job because there are so few of us."

    In either position, the money's not bad. O'Leary puts starting pay for a genetics technologist at about $26 an hour.

    Allaire says med lab graduates can expect about $40,000 to $45,000 a year to begin.

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