The Department of Human Genetics has American Board of Medical Genetics accredited training programs in clinical molecular genetics and clinical cytogenetics. The training programs have a wide range of clinical and research activities including orphan disease diagnostics, genotype-phenotype correlation studies, cancer genetics, translation of new gene discoveries for diagnostic purposes, technology development, centromere delineation, chromosome structure and function studies, and phenotype/karyotype studies. In addition, other research interests in the department include complex disease genetics, gene mapping, human gene variation and evolution and neurogenetics. 

Dr. Raca completed her molecular genetics fellowship at the University of Chicago in 2004.  She is currently a co-Director of the Cancer Cytogenetics Laboratory at the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago. 

When and why did you first decide that you wanted to pursue ABMG accredited clinical molecular genetics training at the University of Chicago?

I got interested in the genetic basis of human diseases when I was a medical student in my home country, Serbia. During medical training, I volunteered in a clinical cytogenetics laboratory to learn how chromosomal abnormalities originate, how they lead to abnormal phenotypes and how they can be diagnosed. I enjoyed learning cytogenetic techniques and working in a clinical laboratory, but I realized that chromosomal disorders represented only a small subset of human genetic diseases. My next wish became to get training in molecular genetics, and understand pathogenesis and detection methods for monogenic diseases. Opportunities to get advanced genetic training were limited in Serbia, so I applied to graduate programs in the United States. My plan was to first acquire basic knowledge in molecular genetics, but to ultimately pursue a career in molecular and cytogenetic diagnostics.

The five years of graduate training at the University of Illinois in Chicago were a very happy time.  I finally had an opportunity to study subjects I was very passionate about, and I also enjoyed living in Chicago. The city had so much to offer, even to a graduate student on a very limited budget. I learned to enjoy walks and bike rides by the lake, picnics and beach volleyball tournaments in summer. In winter, my favorite pastime was to sit in the Borders coffee shop by the Water Tower Place, sipping hot chocolate and watching Christmas lights and crowds of people on Michigan avenue.

I made a lot of new friends in graduate school. Several people in my graduate program were also from Serbia, and we became very close, helping each other with problems but also sharing happy moments and doing fun stuff (movie nights, picnics, free concerts…). A possibility to stay in Chicago for my fellowship training in diagnostics seemed very attractive, and I was thrilled to find out that The University of Chicago was in a process of getting accreditation for an ABMG fellowship in Medical genetics, Cytogenetics and Molecular diagnostics. I applied for a postdoctoral position in Soma’s lab and we agreed that I would transition into fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and clinical cytogenetics as soon as the program got approved. That is how I became the first molecular fellow in Soma’s lab in 2002.

Tell me about what you have been doing since you completed the fellowship program at the University of Chicago in 2004?

Before starting my graduate training at the University of Illinois I spent several years working in a clinical cytogenetic laboratory. I love both cytogenetics and molecular diagnostics, and I wanted to get training and Board certification in both these areas.  After completing molecular training in Soma’s lab,  I was accepted to a cytogenetics training program at Emory. I moved to Atlanta in 2004, and stayed there until completing my cytogenetics fellowship in 2006. As I started looking for my first job as an Assistant director, I searched for a laboratory that would allow me to work on all aspects of cytogenetic testing, but to also work in molecular diagnostics. A position at The UW Genetic Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene turned out to be a perfect fit. This was a combined cytogenetic and molecular laboratory, offering cytogenetic testing for prenatal, constitutional and cancer cases, array CGH analysis and molecular testing for several constitutional diseases and somatic cancer mutations. I spent five years working in this laboratory, first as an Assistant Director and later as a Co-director.

While my previous training focused mostly on hereditary diseases and constitutional abnormalities, at The UW Genetic Laboratory I worked on a large number of cancer cases and I developed interest in cancer genetics. I also missed Chicago, where I spent almost ten years first as a graduate student and then as a postdoc and molecular fellow. When a position opened for a Co-director of the Cancer Cytogenetic laboratory at the University of Chicago I decided to apply. I moved back to The University of Chicago in summer of 2011. I work now on Cancer cytogenetic testing. It was very nice to come back and find many of my old friends (people I met working in Soma’s lab) still at the University. I am truly impressed and very happy to see how much the Molecular Genetics laboratory has grown in less than 10 years. When I was a fellow, there were only three of us in the clinical part of the laboratory, with two additional people doing research. Nowadays the lab has more than 20 people, two directors, two genetic counselors, a bioinformatics expert, and two, even three fellows at a time. It has grown into one of the most renown molecular diagnostic laboratories in the county, and I feel very proud and privileged that I had an opportunity to train in this laboratory.

How has the fellowship program prepared you for your current position?

Although I currently work in a cytogenetic laboratory, my training in molecular diagnostics is of great benefit. As both fields evolve, there is an increasing overlap between cytogenetic and molecular approaches and techniques. Implementation of whole genome DNA arrays in cytogenetic testing requires that each cytogeneticists understands at least basic molecular methods, and has an ability to optimize and troubleshoot purely molecular procedures like DNA isolation, PCR or hybridization. Fluorescence in situ hybridization analysis is another area with a lot of overlap between cytogenetic and molecular approaches. In addition, to properly understand hematologic malignancies studied by my laboratory, one has to understand how both chromosomal mutations as well as mutations at DNA base level contribute to their development. For cases that we test in the laboratory I frequently have to compare and correlate our cytogenetic results with mutation testing data from molecular pathology.

Since in addition to cytogenetics I also love molecular genetics, I am currently working with the Director of the newly established Division of Genomic and Molecular Pathology on getting more actively involved in routine molecular testing within the division. That way I will hopefully in a near future utilize even more my knowledge and training in molecular diagnostics.  

What do you like most about the city of Chicago?

There are many great thinks about Chicago: the lake with its beaches, parks, and trails, Grand park with its summer concerts, the beautiful architecture and a breathtaking skyline, the Magnificent Mile with its shops and tourists, great museums, theaters and restaurants, Chicago symphony, jazz and blues clubs, sports stadiums, ethnic neighborhoods, friendly and sincere people …..Chicago is a huge city that remains comfortable for living; it is not too hectic, overcrowded and stressful as many other big cities.


Any memorable anecdotes or stories from your time here in the Das lab? 

When I was in the Das lab, we were a small group, and I became very close with the people who worked at the lab: Mark, Carla, Angie, Peixian, Ellen, Stephanie…So I invited all of them to a ‘going away party’ I organized at my place before moving to Atlanta. I also invited my friends from graduate schools and from my home country. At the party I noticed that my co-worker from the lab Mark and a friend from my hometown Sanja spent a lot of time talking to each other and laughing, but I forgot about that as I got busy with my new life in Atlanta. A few months later I got an e-mail from Sanja that the two of them were dating, and that this was developing into a serious relationship.  Mark and Sanja are now married and have a very cute three-year old boy Maxim. I see them often since  I’ve moved back to Chicago, and they are probably my closest friends. This was my first (and so far the only) matchmaking success).

Another very dear friend is Angie, whom I also met working in the Molecular genetics lab. We were both coffee drinkers, and we had a regular afternoon routine to go together to a vending machine in the basement and get our favorite coffee drink. In the meantime Angie graduated from medical school and finished a residency in pathology. She is now a faculty at the Department of Pathology here at the University of Chicago; we still regularly have our coffee, except that we ‘upgraded’ from going to a vending machine to having lattes in the closest Starbucks.  So working in the Das lab, I not only learned a lot about molecular genetics, but I also met wonderful people who became my friends for life.