High Incentives and Praises for Laboratory Technologists

April 25, 2017

*Timestamps are included in the article to reflect the time of discussion within the episode at the end of the post.

For Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, we celebrate by highlighting career tips and praises for medical laboratory staff from Dr. Robin Patel, Chair of the Division of Clinical Microbiology at the Mayo Clinic. As guest on This Week in Microbiology (TWIM) #150, Robin Patel shared her insights on how to become a laboratory technologist and why laboratory professionals make such a big impact in clinical labs. She shared a story of how a very observant laboratory technologist led to a new standard of care for lung transplants.  

As Chair of the Division of Clinical Microbiology, Patel manages over 250 members that include laboratory professionals, lab directors, research & development technologists, and others. The Mayo Clinic conducts 3 million tests a year from specimens that originate from the Mayo Clinic hospital itself and from other parts of the world (06:50). While she works with lab personnel to create guidelines and standard operating procedures, laboratory professionals like laboratory technologists run and develop tests on specimens to detect infection-causing pathogens and ensure that testing is done with the highest quality (13:52, 17:20). She finds that her most successful laboratory technologists work well in teams and are knowledgeable in specific areas. "They can look at a colony on a plate and tell you what it is without doing a fancy test and they know antimicrobial susceptibility testing up and down," said Patel (32:30).

With a deficit of laboratory professionals in clinical microbiology labs, Patel explains how one becomes a medical laboratory technologist. There are two common paths toward entering this field: 1) obtain a BS in biology, chemistry, or microbiology and then do a one-year program in medical laboratory science or clinical laboratory science, or 2) do three years of a BS degree in biology, chemistry, or microbiology, followed by one year in medical laboratory science or clinical laboratory science. She highlights that the requirements to becoming a laboratory professional differ between states and may include varying levels of accreditation (23:33).

Once you've met the requirements, you can apply for an entry-level position in clinical microbiology - possibly right out of undergraduate studies and begin your career. Laboratory professionals can progress toward specialization in specific scientific areas, as Caitlin Cahek of Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories did, or toward administrative responsibilities as a supervisor (29:03). Laboratory professional staff can make a big difference; as Patel emphasized in her interview, "The problems we solve in the lab can change people's lives and make medical advances."

With clinical microbiology labs increasingly relying on automated and robotic sample processing, Patel comments that complementing manual skills with data interpretation and analytical skills will be necessary for future laboratory staff. A combination of technological understanding, troubleshooting proficiency, and ambition for further investigations regarding unusual results will make you a great laboratory professional. "Automation is great for repetitive procedures and for ergonomics, and it leaves the fun critical thinking aspect of the job to the laboratory technologists," she added (18:54, 20:15).

At the end of the TWiM episode, Robin explained how one laboratory technologist's discovery led to published work. The laboratory technologist isolated an organism from a catheter which came from a lung transplant patient with hyperammonemia syndrome (high levels of ammonia). Later, with additional samples, her lab detected Ureaplasma species in different lung transplant patients and was able to show in an immunocompromised murine model that Ureaplasma species cause hyperammonemia. They further showed that the donors transmit the Ureaplasma species, which led to a new standard of care, involving screening and treatment of donors for Ureaplasma species before lung transplant. This example illustrates how one very observant and curious lab technologist made an impact from bedside to bench, and back (44:16).

Happy Medical Laboratory Professionals Week!   

For information on how PhDs or MDs can become directors of clinical microbiology labs (35:18), Patel's journey, and more stories of bedside to bench press play (below) to listen to this episode of TWiM.

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Author: Shilpa Gadwal

Shilpa Gadwal
Shilpa Gadwal is the Career Resources Specialist at ASM.