Volume 36 Number 2 | April 2022
Rodney E. Rohde, PhD, SM(ASCP)CMSVCMMBCM, FACSc, ASCLS and TACLS Mentor
Did you know that medical laboratory professionals provide roughly 13 billion laboratory tests each year? Laboratory testing is the single highest-volume medical activity affecting Americans, and it drives about two-thirds of all medical decisions made by doctors and other health care professionals from cradle to grave.1 Each one of us, in our own way, is an expert. Collectively, we are the heartbeat and brain of the health care and public health system. Yet, this expertise often stays buried in the laboratory. We must all find a way to take a bold step forward out of the shadow of the laboratory. We must step into the light where healthcare professionals, the public, and our patients see our expertise!
No one is born an expert. If you want to become a subject matter expert (SME), you have to start somewhere. An SME has a deep knowledge of a specific process, function, or technology (or a combination of all three). These experts are considered an authority on a certain topic—not only educated on the subject but has the capacity to share their knowledge with other interested parties. This information is important to your organization because it gives it a competitive edge. More importantly for us, an SME can provide visibility and awareness.
“We must all find a way to take a bold step forward out of the shadow of the laboratory. We must step into the light where healthcare professionals, the public, and our patients see our expertise!”
Seven Steps to Become a Subject Matter Expert2
- Build a Foundation of Knowledge—You have to start somewhere. I didn’t become a pandemic SME overnight. When students or others ask me how “all of a sudden” I started getting asked to write or speak to Time Magazine, CNBC, Forbes, National Geographic, or the dozens of other outlets over the past two years, I smile because it took a professional lifetime to build that knowledge and expertise. I compare it to when someone wonders how an actor or band becomes an overnight success when in reality they have been working at it for years or more. For me it was a combination of sustained and purposeful education, experience, and research.
- Continue Educating Yourself—This one is a no-brainer for us. Continuing education (CE) must be a part of your career and becoming an SME. Attending conferences, participating in industry opportunities, and formal CE alongside ongoing experience are part of the process.
- Try out Your own Ideas—It’s important to completely immerse yourself in the subject while maintaining an overall generalist approach to the area. For example, I am a specialist in virology and microbiology but I have the overarching theme of the medical laboratory and public health as well. Test your ideas out with trusted colleagues and other experts by offering writing samples. A mentor is a great place to start. A mentor is a safe way to practice and daydream about how you will use these ideas.
- Participate on Social Media—Follow other SME authorities on social media and share reputable information before interjecting your opinions. This habit can be difficult but it is important as you build a professional and public profile. Follow relevant hashtags to keep a pulse on the subject and leverage social media to market your expertise (e.g., Twitter chats, LinkedIn Live, Facebook Live, etc.).
- Share Your Subject Matter Expertise—As you build your professional profile, start a blog or podcast. One of the most direct routes is to work through ASCLS and other professional organizations with committee efforts. For example, I am a member of the ASCLS Microbiology and Public Health Scientific Assembly where I also served as chair. A leadership role in a subject matter area provides a professional reputation and platform to build trust and networks. As I have built my SME role, I started a YouTube channel and became more purposeful about being sure I recorded (or asked for the recording) presentations on my expertise. During the pandemic, I reached out to my employer and asked for a direct role in being an SME for the university which led to a place on the university media and marketing website as a resource. Our university president also appointed me to two university-level committees as a leader to deal with preparations for the pandemic. This step may be the most important step. As you build your profile, ask for opportunities to build your reputation, your employer’s reputation, and the overall medical laboratory visibility.
- Be a Decision Maker—This area takes time as you gain trust and leadership in your career. Hopefully, you can find the authority in your job to influence decisions and outcomes. Influencing decision-making helps one gain recognition and trust as an SME.
- Be Genuine—This step is critical. Remain neutral at all costs unless the platform allows it (e.g., an editorial). Be a true authority on the subject and not someone who is easily persuaded by the goods or services your current profession is selling. Your reputation is of the utmost importance.
Speaking to a Reporter—Tips for Scientists3
- Write down three points you want to make. Have them in front of you during the interview and state them early in the conversation with repetition as opportunities arise. Back them up with data and studies since you are uniquely positioned to inject evidence into the story. Science communication is desperatory needed in society!
- Describe the big picture. Even if not asked, step back and briefly describe the overarching issue or challenge in simple terms. Explain why addressing the issue demands a methodical, scientific approach. Reporters often push for answers, but do the above before you delve into potential solutions.
- It’s okay to disagree with the premise of a question. It’s not rude to say, “Actually, that’s not quite right. Let me explain …” or, “I don’t think your premise is correct. What I see is …” or, “That may be one factor, but the bigger issue is …”
- When you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say so. An option might be, “I’m sorry, that’s outside my area of expertise.” “I don’t have the answer at my fingertips, can I get back to you on that question?” “That isn’t something I focus on, but [my colleague] might be a good person to talk to.”
- Remember these dos and don’ts. Do use analogies, visual examples, and anecdotes. Do ask for clarifying questions. Do close the interview by repeating key points and offering to be available for follow-up questions on fact checking. Don’t use acronyms, abbreviations, or jargon. Don’t “go off the record” during an interview.
Doc R’s Tidbits and Advice4,5
I believe one of the happy accidents that happened in my career journey was the hybridization that occurred between my public health and medical laboratory experiences. Try to actually find ways to multiply your efforts through internships, fellowships, and volunteerism. I often tell my students and others that “I was at the right place, at the right time,” but I was looking for those opportunities to build my knowledge and mentors. Work at your ongoing development by networking, including outside your normal expertise where it aligns, especially within professional organizations like ASCLS and other specialty areas.
Seek out opportunities to become a regular contributor for digital and print media in your circle of expertise. Podcasts and the “explainer article” is a wonderful way to discuss a particular topic in your expertise. An explainer article is jargon used by reporters. These articles allow you to show off your insight into our profession. Remember, the public does not understand what we do each and every day. Tell them, show them, share a story to help them realize who we are, what we do, and how we save lives every single day. I’ve become a regular contributor for the American Society for Microbiology Bugs and Drugs Blog, Healthcare Hygiene Magazine, Forbes, Elsevier Connect, and The Conversation. You can, too! Start with an ASCLS Today article!
Be purposeful in working synergistically on your expertise between print and digital media. Look for opportunities to offer your expertise by volunteering to do interviews at the local, state, national, and international levels. This takes time but it can amplify your message and reputation. I can’t state how important it is to be prompt and use good manners in your efforts with reporters. I continue to believe in sincere “Thank you” phone calls and emails with my contacts. I share this simple tip often with my children, students, and colleagues. A consistent effort will pay off in ways you may not even realize, such as through a recommendation from an editor or reporter.
I often do multiple follow-up emails with editors and reporters by offering new insight or research that I’ve come across. Then, I offer more insight if they need it. I also ask for links to my personal and professional work (publications, interviews, etc.) to amplify my message and expertise. Again, thank them often. Don’t be afraid to send a story idea as you build your reputation.
Do not underestimate a strong personal webpage for a landing platform for others to utilize. A well-organized webpage is an invaluable tool for searches that occur.
I have so many other tips and thoughts but perhaps that can be shared in a future workshop. In recent years, I have become a globally viral author and subject matter expert utilizing invited articles, TEDx talks, podcasts, video casts, and interviews to enhance science communication and translational health research literacy in public health, healthcare, and the medical laboratory environment. During the SARSCoV2 / #COVID19 pandemic, I became the number one quoted Texas State University subject matter expert, conducting over 150 interviews for podcasts, TV, newspapers, and internet sites, as well as delivering dozens of webinars, publications, and workshops at the international, national, state, and local levels. It has been an amazing and gratifying journey that began years ago. Are you ready to get started as a subject matter expert? See you soon!
- Rohde R.E. The omicron variant is deepening severe staffing shortages in medical laboratories across the US. The Conversation. January 19, 2022. https://theconversation.com/the-omicron-variant-is-deepening-severe-staffing-shortages-in-medical-laboratories-across-the-us-174459
- Lazaro, Marquie. 7 Steps To Become A Subject Matter Expert (SME) October 28, 2019. Accessed from https://www.gqrgm.com/7-steps-to-become-a-subject-matter-expert/ February 7, 2022.
- Personal communication. October 1, 2021. Mohamed Yakub, Ph.D., SciLine, Science Outreach Manager. Tips for Scientists While Speaking to Reporters.
- Rohde, Rodney E. Personal Webpage. Accessed from https://rodneyerohde.wp.txstate.edu/sarscov2-covid19-resources/ February 6, 2022.
- Rohde, R.E. Invited presentation for ASCLS Region VIII IMMS – Be the Expert: A Pandemic Opportunity. Jackson Hole, WY. October 4, 2021.
Rodney E. Rohde is Regents’ Professor, Texas State University System; University Distinguised Professor and Chair, College of Health Professions, CLS Program; Associate Director, Translational Health Research Center, at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.