A Career in Clinical Microbiology: Medical Laboratory Scientist
We interviewed Tyrell Cox, MLT (ASCP)CMMB, a medical lab scientist at Banner University Medical Center in clinical microbiology. He shares his journey and what skills are needed for his profession.
Tell us about your path to your current job.
I got my Associate's degree in Biology from Arizona Western College and a BS in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. After leaving school, I had a hard time finding a science job and when I explored my career options online, I learned about becoming a clinical lab technician. One structured path to becoming a clinical lab technician is to complete a NAACLS accredited Medical Lab Technician (MLT) program which is typically offered through community colleges. I enrolled in the MLT program at Pima Community College where I took courses related to laboratory medicine and also spent time rotating through various departments (e.g., chemistry, microbiology, blood bank) in a clinical laboratory. Once I completed the program, I was eligible for the MLT exam and became MLT certified through American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). I started off my career working as a MLT at the University of Arizona Medical Center (later Banner Health Network) and I performed lab testing in the areas of virology, serology, and molecular biology.
After a year of clinical lab experience and having my Bachelor's degree, I was eligible for the Molecular Biology (MB) certification from ASCP. Shortly after receiving the MB certification, I was promoted to Medical Lab Scientist (MLS), which allows me to take on additional senior-level duties. For example, I order reagents for the lab, and as lead tech for a testing instrument, I review test results and oversee quality control for the specific instrument. I am also the safety liaison to the lab and have interim duties, such as, reviewing virology reports and attending Quality Liaison meetings.
I should mention that all my education, training, and work experience has been in Arizona. Arizona does not have specific licensure or certification requirements for clinical laboratory staff and the background required for different job classifications is up to the individual laboratory. This is not the case in all states as some require licensure or certification.
For people interested in clinical microbiology, the easiest way to determine what certifications and licensing works best for you is to check the eligibility pathways for certification and state licensure requirements.
What are the key technical skills needed in your role day-to-day?
I do molecular assays and virology cultures where I use cell lines to detect human viruses, so analytical skills are important. I need to be able to interpret results, ask whether they make sense and meet standard criteria, and if it matches with what is already known. It's important to have good hand eye coordination to pipette small amounts of fluid precisely. It's helpful to be mechanically inclined because we often operate instruments that involve troubleshooting either on our own or with a technical support person.
Obviously, technical skills are essential in the lab environment, but how important do you think the professional skills such as team work and communications are in your work?
Communication is a fantastic skill to have in the lab. Contrary to what people think about lab work, you do work with other people and have to communicate with them. Your day to day work may vary on how many samples you have, the requests you get from healthcare workers, and the amount of staff on hand, so it's important to communicate with your coworkers to establish a timely workflow. For example, when flu and respiratory season is high, we have three tests that need to be done and they range from a 10 minute test to a 6 hour test. As the tests get more complex and there are more samples, time becomes demanding while maintaining fast, accurate, and reliable results - and most of this is done in a team effort. I find that by communicating better, it increases the amount of team work being done, which ultimately leads to higher output from the lab.
As a Bench Tech, what role does personal initiative play in achieving superior performance and professional satisfaction in the work you do?
Taking a personal initiative is huge in my field. The first step is taking the initiative to go beyond the lab bench by validating assays, taking on projects, conducting studies on how to improve workflow, and educating yourself with new content and skills. I personally read the Cumitechs* from ASM and these are not required of me, but I know that if I want to learn and grow in this career, then I have to take the initiative to do it. The second step is establishing a great track record - don't make mistakes and be good and attentive with what you do.
What types of professional development are you engaged in to advance your career?
I'll be honest here, the trickiest thing for me is time management and separating what I want to do versus what I need to do, and what the best approach is to advancing my career while still doing a great job of what is required of me now. Learning or taking on new projects could turn into a buffet approach - you grab all the delicious looking food but then you realize you have too much and can't eat it all. So when it comes to professional development, I try to exercise some control.
With that being said, I try to read about current trends like Zika, new recommendations for lab practices, and learn more about lab documentation. I attended Microbe 2016 as an ASM New Tech Professional Development Grant awardee and it was a fantastic experience. I was able to network with other new techs and our assigned mentors introduced us to other people that gave us advice on our career.
What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you were starting out in your career?
Try to build good relationships with your coworkers, especially with the more experienced people of your field. Learn as much as you can from them and don't be afraid to ask them questions and appoint them as a mentor. Also, take on opportunities to build yourself professionally and personally.
Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
It's an exciting career; I love it because there are always new technologies to learn, it's intellectually stimulating and it challenges me. It's also gratifying for me to know that what I do is important and informs a doctor on how to proceed with patient care.
* Cumitechs are available to ASM members only. Join ASM today!