ASCP Lab Careers on the Rise
A career that has traditionally been overshadowed by more visible healthcare professions is suddenly in the spotlight because of the world’s interest in coronavirus testing.
Medical laboratory scientists who work in hospital labs and in national reference laboratories such as ARUP are the inconspicuous, less visible participants in helping to diagnose patients.
And these scientists are in demand. “At ARUP, we’ve had to come up with unique and creative ways to work with our employees and grow them into medical laboratory scientists because there are just not enough to fill all our positions,” says Karen McRae, student education coordinator. Approaches to increase the number of staff members with medical laboratory science (MLS) degrees include a partnership with Weber State University’s MLS program, on-site training and education, and tuition reimbursement for employees who complete MLS degrees.
About six and half years ago, Jeffrey Clifford started in the Microbial Amplified Detection Lab and then earned a Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) degree through the University of Utah’s MLS program using ARUP’s tuition reimbursement program. He had an undergraduate degree in biology and a minor in chemistry when he started at ARUP. Today, Clifford is an MLS lead in the Molecular infectious Diseases Lab.
This career path can be ideal for anyone who is fascinated by science and wants to help patients, but not necessarily work directly with patients. Laboratory work requires strict attention to detail, tenacity, and repetition, according to McRae, who has worked in a number of labs throughout her career.
“In a lot of labs, it is the repetition that ends up making you an expert,” McRae says. “You start recognizing what is normal and what is not. You recognize patterns and small changes that may be important clues to a disease or illness.”
“It’s like a puzzle. In microbiology, you are trying to figure out which organism is in the sample, and there is a process involved in trying to figure it out,” says Jeffrey Clifford, an MLS lead in the Molecular Infectious Diseases Lab at ARUP. “The machines in our lab aren’t like a black box where I don’t know what is going on. I know on a microscopic level what is going on.”
Educational Pathways for Laboratory Scientists
The most direct educational path to working in a lab entails earning an MLS bachelor’s degree, which can take up to five years and requires clinical laboratory experience. The final step after graduating is to pass a nationally recognized certification test, such as the one offered through the American Society for Clinical Pathology. Those with MLS degrees are sometimes referred to as medical laboratory technologists or med techs.
Most states have at least one university or college that offers an MLS program. Utah, home to ARUP, offers four. Some institutes offer MLS master’s degree programs, as well, which often attract students with undergraduate degrees in the sciences. Colleges sometimes call MLS programs allied health, clinical lab science, or medical technology programs.
Medical laboratory technicians (MLTs) can also work in laboratories, usually performing the same testing as those with MLS degrees but without supervisory duties. MLTs have a two-year associate’s degree in MLS.
MLS degrees expose students to a variety of areas, with rotations in hematology, molecular diagnostics, immunology, urinalysis, microbiology, chemistry, parasitology, toxicology, immunohematology (blood banking), coagulation and transfusion, and laboratory safety and operations. Additional accreditation may be required to specialize in a specific area, although a lot of learning happens through on-the-job training.
Research & Development (R&D) scientist Buck Lozier circled back to earn his MLS certification. He started at ARUP with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, working as a technologist trainee in the Autoimmune Immunology Lab. Within a year, he earned certification as an immunology technologist and then pursued a master’s degree in laboratory medicine and biomedical science, all while working at ARUP. The master’s degree provided him the opportunity to develop and improve lab tests, including, most recently, COVID-19 antibody testing. Lozier eventually went on to obtain his MLS certification.
“I’m a mechanic by nature and worked as one through my undergraduate years,” says Lozier, who grew up taking machines apart and reassembling them. “I don’t like to let broken things or problems sit. Basically, my job here is to fix or improve lab tests. And in the process, I get to work with experts—our medical directors—who are at the top of their fields. I learn something new every day.”