Interview with Dr. Peter Sabatini, Clinical Geneticist at University Health Network

sabatiniPlease give us a little background about yourself, from your Bachelor’s degree to current position

I completed my Bachelors of Science degree at the University of Toronto in Human Biology and Physiology. I then began my Masters degree at UofT in Cardiovascular Science. My research was going really well and I decided to transfer to the PhD program. At the time, I was using different microscopy techniques to study cell migration. After I finished, I secured a role as a Postdoctoral Research Scientist with Luminex Molecular Diagnostics where I stayed for 2 years. My industrial postdoc opened up a lot of opportunities for me and gave me the option of staying in industry, going back to academia, or branching out into something completely different. I was always interested in diagnostics, but wasn’t exposed to genetics until this postdoc experience. Following this, I decided to apply for a Clinical Genetics program with the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists (CCMG). I did my fellowship training with the CCMG at The Hospital for Sick Children. Following this, I worked at North York General as a Molecular Geneticist where I got trained in Cytogenics. I am now at the University Health Network where I work as a Clinical Molecular Geneticist and Cytogeneticist.

What was the most valuable part of your graduate school and postdoctoral experience?

The most valuable part was the interactions I had with people, in terms of getting to know everyone around me and forming deeper connections. I don’t only mean this from a friendship point of view, but also the mentorship from other scientists and clinicians. I think that technical skills and the information you gather come really naturally during a PhD/postdoc, but the interactions that you have with people are invaluable.

What was your industry postdoc like and do you feel that it was a beneficial start to your career?

My industry postdoc was an incredible experience. At Luminex, I worked with a wide range of people with really different expertise – some of which I had not been exposed to before. Luminex is a biotechnology company that makes genetic tests for a range of diseases – inherited diseases, infectious diseases, etc. I worked in assay development where I was designing and conducting validation studies of these tests for regulatory clearance so they could be used in the market. The position opened up opportunities for me that would never have been available for me otherwise. Industry postdocs are an excellent way to transition to an industry career. It gets you in the sector, gives you great exposure, and gives you something to use to leverage other jobs. On the flip side, if you don’t enjoy it, it still provides a way to get back into academia.

What is the training like to become a Clinical Geneticist?

I completed my training with CCMG, but there are other programs in the USA. This program is critical because you cannot become a clinical geneticist without it. The program is very difficult to get into – there are only a few positions available each year. The program itself is very clinically focussed. There is no mandatory coursework, but they recommend you to audit some courses to learn clinical concepts. The majority of the program involved logging cases and doing some research. The program itself lasts 2 years and has an exam at the end. I was very excited about this program – it involved a lot of independent work, often in a laboratory setting, as well as consulting with other scientists, so it was similar to doing a PhD. I had not previously been exposed to the clinical side of things, so there was a lot of information to learn and I had to work hard to succeed.

What does your role as a clinical geneticist entail and what is your average work day like/some of the tasks you complete?

We have a number of geneticists in our lab, each with our own specialities. The majority of my tasks involve signing out diagnostic reports or genetic tests that come in for patients, and setting up new tests for them. We analyse the results, make sure the patient report and results match, and then we send the information to either an oncologist or geneticist. 95% of these cases are very standard, but 5% may be difficult cases that require some follow up or further discussions. We also have a genetic counsellor on the team to explain the results to patients and consult with.

I am also involved in the validation of new diagnostic and genetic tests and in research for new diagnostic markers that can be used in our lab. I think about troubleshooting tests a lot, and attend meetings to learn about the latest techniques and tests to make our practice better. In addition, I am appointed as an Assistant Professor with the University of Toronto. What is your favourite part of your job? What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

My favorite part of the job is that I feel like I am making a difference and helping people. I am involved in the diagnosis and management of people and their conditions, so in the grander scheme, it feels like I am helping to provide answers and move things forward. I also really enjoy that this career sits in the middle of all the sectors – academia, industry, and clinic. We rely on industry to design instruments and tests that fit our needs, the academic side where the new information comes from, and the clinical side because that’s who we aim to help. This makes the job really interesting and rewarding.

The most challenging part is troubleshooting tests. Sometimes this has to be done in timely manner for patient care and can be difficult and stressful.

What skills are necessary to be successful as a clinical geneticist?

The top three skills you need are patience, attention to detail, and communication.

What are things that a graduate student should be doing now if they want a role as a clinical geneticist?

Get involved in diagnostic field as soon as you can. The Medical Geneticist program is very competitive and they often look for postdoctoral experience. If you are interested in this career, think about where you want to do your postdoc, either academic or industrial, and try to get into the genetic diagnostic field to make yourself stand out.

What advice would you give to current graduate students who are trying to find the career right for them and/or job searching?

There are a lot of career options for PhDs, and maybe that’s the problem. You should figure out what you want to do. I had a general idea of what I wanted, but when I focused on a specific career, things started happening for me. When I was networking, I could tell people exactly what I wanted to do, so they knew exactly how to help me. That’s how I got pointed toward Luminex to do the industrial postdoc, and that wouldn’t have happened if I had been very vague about my career goals. So before networking, I think it’s important to know what you want and to be specific.

Interview by LSCDS Exec Member Neeti Vashi

Neeti is a PhD candidate in the department of Molecular Genetics, pursuing her research in the lab of Dr. Monica Justice. She is interested in a career in Medical Affairs or Medical Writing. She can be found on LinkedIn here.