A Career in Clinical Microbiology: Research and Development Technologist
Scott Cunningham, a Research and Development Technologist at the Mayo Clinic, identifies new technologies and applications for the clinical lab. He moved up the ranks to become an expert in procedural matters and training of new staff. He encourages students to aim for new goals by training for new methods and taking on additional projects. Find out more about what he does and advice for trainees.
What do you do in your current role?
I am currently a research and development technologist whose primary role is to fill the gaps between research and the clinical laboratory by evaluating new technologies and applications.
What did you do to land your position as a technical specialist?
I believe that the biggest contributor to moving into a technical specialist role was engaging with the other technical specialists and lab management personnel within my workplace. I put forth more effort by volunteering for various projects. I also worked to master the procedures and policies that the laboratory had in place and used this knowledge to contribute to solutions during technical difficulties. All of the experiences were helpful to build the knowledge base needed to move into a technical specialist role. The same efforts were needed to advance into my current role as a research and development technologist.
What are the key technical skills needed in your role day-to-day? Are they different from those of a Bench Tech?
Essentially, technical specialist positions at my institution require functioning at two levels. First and foremost, technical specialists participate in patient-centered, day-to-day bench work alongside bench technologists. In addition, technical specialists are expected to provide guidance in procedural matters, such as media preparation and instrument operation; serve as bench-level experts to train less experienced and new staff members; assist with management and oversight of the laboratory staff; and help with special projects (e.g. validation studies, clinical trials, etc.).
What's the most challenging thing about your job on a day-to-day basis?
Currently, my job involves the design, development and validation of new tests for use in the clinical laboratory. The most challenging thing is to ensure that I think about new tests globally. First, it is incredibly important to assess and estimate how easy the test is to perform. Second and of equal importance, I have to make an assessment of the reproducibility of the method in the hands for nearly 50 persons with varying levels of experience. As you progress in your career at the bench, complex tests become less laborious and less challenging. It is easy to get tunnel vision and underestimate the complexity of a test or method, without keeping the day-to-day operation of the laboratory in mind, especially when considering high testing volumes and/or understaffing issues that many labs face. Working to strike a cognitive balance between what I can do and what is reasonable to ask of my colleagues in the clinical lab (and communicating those concerns to superiors) is imperative to being able to successfully launch a new test in the laboratory.
What are the typical decision-points you encounter in your work? Could you give an example?
I am fortunate to have a great deal of freedom and creativity in my current role. Choosing novel methodologies versus previously published methodologies are always at the top of the decision tree - as are choosing instrumentation and reagents. The decision tree is a team-based approach that requires interfacing with the laboratory director and lab management. A recent example would be choosing a molecular target for an assay detecting Coxiella burnetii in clinical samples. There is a plethora of prior-knowledge methods in the literature that could have been simply duplicated, re-evaluated, and verified for use as a laboratory developed test. I was able to make a proposal to the laboratory director that advocated the use of a novel molecular target and then compared that assay to an alternate-target assay from the literature. Through this process, we were able to detect a novel case of septic arthritis caused by C. burnetii that was missed by a widely used alternative PCR target, and publish our work and the case.
What is the least exciting part of your job? How do you approach this to make it fulfilling?
One area that I think everyone can identify as a drag is the "paperwork" aspect. I always viewed the less stimulating parts of my job in a more comprehensive mindset and stayed focused on our larger mission, which is to put our patients' best interest at the forefront of everything we do. This keeps me focused on creating something that will be used to positively impact a patient's care. It also helps that my job allows me to work with the latest technologies available in the diagnostic field, which is pretty stimulating for me.
What types of professional development are you engaged in to advance your career?
Never settle for the status quo or rest on one's laurels or accomplishments. This bit came from a very accomplished scientist and lab director whom I was able to work with early in my career and someone I really identified with, so I took it very seriously. ASM provides many excellent opportunities for continuing education through their many publications, email list-serves, web-based resources, and regional and national meetings. In addition, there are many opportunities to get involved with the ASM through volunteering. For example, I started my second 3-year term on the Clinical Microbiology Mentorship Committee. Through this I get the opportunity to interact with a variety of persons in the field and outside of my own organization, which in itself is enriching. Additionally, the committee works to find novel ways to promote our field and provide resources for all levels of personnel, which also requires self-emersion in educational materials, and engagement and networking with other microbiology professionals.