Carol Saunders, PhD, FACMG, clinical director, Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine; director, Clinical Molecular Genetics Laboratory; associate professor of Pediatric Pathology, University of Missouri-Kansas City, The Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, Kansas City, MO
ADVANCE: What prompted you to enter the laboratory profession?
Saunders: I had an amazing high school biology teacher who focused on genetics and biotechnology. I was fortunate, because at that time it was unusual to have exposure to molecular biology lab techniques at that level.
ADVANCE: How did your family feel about you pursuing a career in the laboratory profession?
Saunders: I was torn between pursuing art or science. I took a lot of art classes and was fairly talented. My science teacher encouraged me to follow my artist talents; my art teacher said I was too smart to be a "starving artist." My family supported either choice. I chose science, realizing that I could always do art as a hobby.
ADVANCE: How did you obtain your first job in the laboratory industry?
Dr. Saunders: This is my first "real" job, if you don't count postdoctoral training. Like any other field, it came down to being qualified and knowing the right people!
ADVANCE: What piece of laboratory technology would you not want to live without?
Dr. Saunders: The next generation sequencers, compute infrastructure and the technicians who run them: This is where everything in the molecular world is moving.
ADVANCE: Discuss a significant advancement you've witnessed in the laboratory industry.
Dr. Saunders: We recently designed and built a genome center, which has been running for over a year. A lot of thought and planning went into our testing, software design and analysis techniques. We have already made many diagnoses that would have never happened otherwise. We are truly changing the way medicine is practiced.
ADVANCE: How or where do you do your best planning?
Dr. Saunders: I carefully think things through when I'm alone. This happens in various places, such as walking my dogs, going for a run, or working in the garden. I am not a list maker. If I do make a list, I will forget to look at it.
ADVANCE: What laboratory events are you sure to attend?
Dr. Saunders: I always go to the American College of Medical Genetics conference, and then usually make a tough choice between the Association for Molecular Pathology and American Society for Human Genetic Meetings. This year, I'm attending all three.
ADVANCE: How do you keep current with laboratory trends?
Dr. Saunders: The field is moving so fast. Fortunately, I have some technology-driven colleagues on my team who like to stay on the leading edge of everything, so by default I'm not too far behind.
ADVANCE: What are the greatest rewards of your work?
Dr. Saunders: Helping a family find a diagnosis that, in some cases, has eluded them for decades. A treatment may or may not be available (usually not) but in any case, a molecular diagnosis provides definitive information about recurrence risk as well as a sense of closure for the family.
ADVANCE: What do you look forward to the most when going to work?
Dr. Saunders: Exome analysis (combing through sequence data from the coding regions of the whole genome to find the one gene responsible for a patient's problems) is so much fun. It's like solving a puzzle--it's so satisfying to find the answer.
|MOUNTAIN TOP: Dr. Saunders with her husband and daughter atop Pike's Peak in Colorado Springs, CO, this summer. ADVANCE thanks Dr. Saunders
ADVANCE: Discuss a memorable moment in the laboratory.
Dr. Saunders: We did whole genome analysis on a family with two children affected with congenital heart defects and a condition where their internal organs are on the wrong side of their bodies. By comparing their genomes to their unaffected parents, we were able to find a new candidate gene for this condition.
ADVANCE: Reflecting on your career choice, are you glad you chose the laboratory profession?
Dr. Saunders: Definitely, but there are days when art still calls to me, especially when I go to an art show or museum. Hopefully I can make more time for that in the future.
ADVANCE: What goals do you have for your career before retirement?
Dr. Saunders: My immediate goal is to pass my board recertification exam, which has to be renewed every 10 years. The first 10 years went really fast. Other goals include being promoted to full professor and finding new disease genes.
ADVANCE: What advancement in the laboratory industry are you most looking forward to?
Dr. Saunders: What we need most is a clinical-grade mutation database, so when we have DNA variants that look interesting we have reliable information to interpret the results. In general, we need more sophisticated bioinformatic tools to aid in quicker whole genome/whole exome analysis.
ADVANCE: What profession does your spouse work in? Compare this with your work.
Dr. Saunders: My husband studied law and business and has his own consulting firm that caters mostly to the energy field. If you need to buy or sell a power plant, he's your guy! He has attended some energy conferences where topics include organic chemistry and biological systems related to alternative energy sources, so maybe the two fields aren't as different as they seem.
ADVANCE: How do you balance work with raising children?
Dr. Saunders: I have two young kids -- a 6-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy. It's not always easy, especially with a husband who travels frequently. My kids are my number one priority -- I restrict my time away during the day from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I frequently work after they go to bed. I'd be lost without my VPN access.
ADVANCE: How do you relax?
Dr. Saunders: I'm honestly not good at relaxing. There is always something to do in the garden or house. If I really want to relax I have to go somewhere where they practically make you do it, like a spa. This rarely happens.
ADVANCE: What is your next travel destination?
Dr. Saunders: We are taking a family vacation to see my husband's family in San Diego in a few weeks.
ADVANCE: Where can you be found on a Friday or Saturday night?
Dr. Saunders: If we get out without kids, we are big foodies and love a good restaurant. At this point in our lives, we are most likely home watching a movie after the kids are in bed.
ADVANCE: Tell us about one your hobbies.
Dr. Saunders: I love to garden -- both plants and vegetables. It's totally therapeutic to play in the dirt, and there is nothing better than a tomato right out of the garden. My hydrangeas are taller than me and are almost gaudy with blooms this year.
ADVANCE: What's your favorite season?
Dr. Saunders: Spring. After a cold dead winter, it's always so amazing when you see the first bit of green emerging -- you forget how beautiful it is.
ADVANCE: What type of car do you drive?
Dr. Saunders: I have a beautiful 10-year-old Audi which I love, but am about to replace. It seems to be dying a slow electronic death. Just yesterday the passenger window decided it won't stay up. It's 105 degrees outside and I'm seriously considering some duct tape. This says I'm too lazy or busy (or both) to go car shopping.
ADVANCE: Tell us about your pets.
Dr. Saunders: We have a menagerie! We rescued three big dogs (a boxer mix, a golden retriever mix, and a pit bull), a cat, and a big aquarium with frogs and fish. The boxer and pit bull have been with us since they were puppies and are now 10; the golden mix is at least 12, but we've only had him for a few years. I found him on my way to work limping in the rain in a bad neighborhood -- he was a mess. I wasn't looking for another dog, but it
ADVANCE: Tell us about your favorite TV show, movie or book.
Dr. Saunders: I don't watch much TV, but I like comedies such as Modern Family and 30 Rock. I love to read, but right now if I'm reading anything, it's something to prepare for boards.
ADVANCE: What was the last concert you've been too?
Dr. Saunders: One of my husband's clients has a box at our local venue and we are lucky to be invited occasionally, when they have open spots. I think the last one we went to was Pearl Jam, which was great. Most of the "concerts" I go to are kid bands, like Mr. Stinkyfeet; the source of enticement there should be self-evident!
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