As a child, Ashley Garza was fascinated by television shows about science.
“My friends would watch cartoons, and I’d watch National Geographic,” she recalls.
A miniature microscope, complete with slides and test tubes, was her favorite toy.
“I looked at all sorts of things under that lens,” she says. “A strand of hair, a blade of grass, you name it.”
Today, Garza is a college senior preparing to graduate from MD Anderson’s Molecular Genetics Technology Program this summer.
Training future molecular genetic technologists
Housed in the cancer center’s School of Health Professions, the program trains students to operate a host of high-tech laboratory instruments and perform a variety of genetic tests on human specimens such as blood, saliva, tumors, amniotic fluid and bone marrow. By analyzing and interpreting the genetic material in these samples, Garza and other soon-to-be graduates will provide physicians with valuable information that helps diagnose, treat and monitor a patient’s condition.
“Our students learn about chromosomes and DNA, and the diseases and syndromes that result from genetic mutations,” says Irene Newsham, Ph.D., the program’s education coordinator. “By the time they graduate, they can red-flag mutated genes in a patient’s sample that are associated with specific diseases or disorders.”
Students also learn to identify genes linked to inherited conditions, which may influence family planning.
Graduates earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Molecular Genetic Technology and are eligible to take a national exam to become certified in the field. While in school, they hone their skills by working at hospitals and clinical labs that are affiliated with the program, and are well-prepared to enter the expanding molecular diagnostic workforce, Newsham says.
An example for younger relatives
Garza will be the first person in her family to earn a college degree.
“I hope to set an example for my younger relatives,” she says. “It takes a lot of hard work, but it can be done.”
She recalls struggling through organic chemistry, which “almost made me switch my major to accounting.” But she stuck it out, and is glad she did.
“Just remember,” she says, “the rewards after graduation will be far greater than the sacrifice you make as a student.”
An evolving field
After completing the program, Garza knows her education won’t end.
“Genetics is a constantly evolving field,” she says. “As new discoveries are made, the molecular genetic technologist’s role will continue to change and expand.”