Working in a Reference & Non-Reference Microbiology Laboratory

June 12, 2023

Whether you are a newly certified clinical microbiologist or looking to apply for a position in a different type of laboratory, you might be trying to decide which laboratory setting would be the right fit for you. In this episode of Career Conversations for the Medical and Public Health Scientist, Phyu Thwe, Ph.D., D(ABMM), MLS(ASCP)CM, Associate Director of Infectious Disease Testing at Montefiore Medical Center, New York, and her guests, Kurt Jude, MLS(ASCP)CM, Quality Management Coordinator at Mayo Clinic, Rochester and Amaya Tan, MLS(ASCP)CM, Supervisor of the Infectious Disease Molecular Department at a national reference laboratory, discuss career options in reference vs. academic clinical microbiology laboratory settings. 

For those who are not familiar with reference vs. academic vs. non-academic clinical laboratories: an academic clinical laboratory is directly affiliated with an academic medical center and serves as a primary teaching laboratory for clinical laboratory science and medical students and residents. On the other hand, a commercial reference laboratory serves as a reference laboratory for common and/or specialized diagnostic testing and may or may not have a direct affiliation with medical schools or universities. For example, LabCorp or Quest are large national reference laboratories, and some sites partner with academic institutions. Whereas Mayo Clinic is both a reference and academic clinical laboratory. Non-academic clinical laboratories are those without affiliation with any academic institutions or medical schools, although they may host medical laboratory science students for their clinical internship.

Jude started as a medical laboratory scientist in the Mayo Clinic microbiology laboratory. Within 2 years, he was promoted to quality specialist. Then, Jude worked as a senior MLS in the microbiology lab at Allina Health Laboratory for 6 years, during which time he was promoted to lead technologist. He then returned to the Mayo Clinic as a quality management coordinator. 

Tan began her career as a generalist microbiologist in her home country Philippines. After relocating to the U.S., she was hired by her current employer as a medical laboratory scientist II before being promoted to lead technologist. Recently, she was promoted to supervisor of molecular infectious disease sessions at the same reference laboratory.  

Jude and Tan shared their experiences and insights on working in reference laboratories and routine clinical microbiology laboratory settings. 

Key Takeaways From the Episode

  • The mentorship Tan received from her superiors/supervisors was crucial in helping her become a skilled technologist and has played a key role in her career growth. Seeking mentorship from those who are willing to provide guidance would allow one to excel in their career. 
  • Not all reference laboratories host students or allow their employees to be involved in external teaching. However, those interested in teaching younger generations can still take advantage of opportunities to train interned medical laboratory science students in reference laboratory settings. 
  • While some laboratories may have limited options to climb the career ladder, those that serve as both a reference and academic clinical laboratory provide numerous opportunities for career growth. Jude emphasized the importance of being flexible and showing interest in fulfilling different roles/completing tasks in diverse areas of the laboratory. For instance, while his primary role is a quality coordinator, he also works with the safety team, compliance team and other teams for various tasks. 
  • Some laboratories offer more opportunities for traveling to conferences, whereas others allow individuals to participate in or lead various projects in the laboratory. One needs to be proactive and willing to take part in projects. During job interviews, they can also find out if prospective employers allow employees to attend conferences and external training.
  • See our May Career Conversation episode for interview tips.
  • Advice from Jude, who spent his career in academic, non-academic and extensive reference laboratories: regardless of the laboratory type, one needs to identify the laboratory setting in which they want to grow their career. 

Career Conversations for the Medical and Public Health Laboratory Scientist is a twice-quarterly discussion on career advancement in clinical and public health laboratories. Members of ASM’s Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Subcommittee (CMMS) will invite guests from clinical and public health microbiology laboratories to discuss topics specific to the laboratory. The CMMS’ goal is to help others learn more about the profession and advance their careers in the clinical or public health microbiology laboratory.

The CMMS provides career advancement activities for those new to the field of clinical or public health microbiology. Its roster of mentors is available to answer any career advancement questions you have.

Author: ASM Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Subcommittee

ASM Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Subcommittee
ASM's Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Subcommittee (CMMS) provides career and networking advice to those looking to advance in clinical and public health microbiology.

Author: Phyu M. Thwe, Ph.D., D(ABMM), MLS(ASCP)CM

Phyu M. Thwe, Ph.D., D(ABMM), MLS(ASCP)CM
Phyu M. Thwe, Ph.D., is associate director, infectious disease testing at Montefiore Medical Center and assistant professor, department of pathology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.