Volume 36 Number 2 | April 2022
Heather Herrington, DVM, MLS(ASCP)CM, Ascending Professionals Forum Vice Chair
The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh holds an annual event called SciTech Days. It’s an opportunity for students in junior high and high school to interact with STEM-focused companies and professionals. This year, they did things a bit differently, and held the event over multiple dates with a different theme for each day. One day focused on “Health and the Human Body,” and I reached out to the organizer, asking if she needed volunteers for the career panel, and she did. When I volunteered to write this article, I intended to write about my experience talking to those students …
… and then I dropped the ball. By the time I reached out to her again, the career panel was full. I had missed my shot. But I still had a deadline to meet, so it was time to talk to my brand-new coworkers.
“Be on the lookout for local events, such as high school career fairs, museum outreach days, college career fairs, etc. Have a concise description of your job ready to give at a moment’s notice, one that conveys that you are a crucial part of the healthcare team.”
At work, thanks to some sort of miracle, my department just hired four new graduates, and I asked them all about how they originally heard about medical laboratory science, looking for some truly magnificent or innovative outreach ideas. Spoiler alert: I ended up disappointed.
The first two I approached didn’t realize that medical laboratory science was even an option until the spring semester of their junior years, and they only learned about it because they were unhappy with the majors they had originally chosen. One had been doing research in college, but went to her advisor for suggestions, after deciding she didn’t want to do the same experiment over and over again desperately hoping for different results. Having worked in research for some time, I can empathize. The other had chosen a major somewhat related to medicine but knew that she would rather be working in a laboratory. That’s right—she knew she wanted to work in a lab, and no one told her medical laboratory science was “a thing.” Even worse, during her clinical rotations, she was told to use this experience as a stepping-stone to a physician assistant program, even though she had never indicated even the slightest interest in that field.
My third coworker had been working in medical research professionally for several years, but knew she needed a job that would give her greater flexibility if she ever needed to move home. When a friend of hers applied to an MLS program at a local college, she looked into it and discovered it was exactly what she wanted, so she found out about this field through random chance. My fourth coworker had applied to a program to be a pathologist’s assistant and was rejected but realized that every person on the interview board was either an MLT or MLS. Her parents were friends with a pathologist who encouraged her to pursue her MLS certification. So, again, random chance.
As a profession, when it comes to visibility, we’re all dropping the ball, and we all have to do better.
For anyone who somehow hasn’t noticed, there’s a workforce shortage in our field, and people aren’t going to magically end up working in a medical laboratory if they don’t even know this career exists. That’s where all of us need to do our part.
This doesn’t need to be a Herculean effort. Obviously, if you want to reach out to local news publications and TV stations and encourage them to do a public interest piece on “Life in the Lab,” go forth and prosper! But you can start a lot smaller than that.
Baby steps—do your friends and family know what you do? If they’re old enough, do their children know what you do? Pretend you’re at a “Before COVID” party, making small talk. If someone asked the predictable question, “So, what do you do?” How would you respond? If the answer is anything like, “I just work in the lab,” I’m confident we can all use our pandemic experience to come up with much more impressive descriptions.
There are plenty of people out there who are fascinated with medicine and end up going down the road of becoming nurses or doctors, perhaps because they don’t know there are other options. Even worse, some might leave medicine behind entirely because they don’t realize you can be in a medical field without necessarily interacting directly with patients. (To the phlebotomists out there: I salute you. I much prefer the organisms I encounter in the microbiology department where I work!) Those are the people we need to reach.
Stay vigilant! Be on the lookout for local events, such as high school career fairs, museum outreach days, college career fairs, etc. Have a concise description of your job ready to give at a moment’s notice, one that conveys that you are a crucial part of the healthcare team. When an opportunity for visibility presents itself, don’t drop the ball!
Heather Herrington is a Medical Technologist at Allegheny Health Network in Pittsburgh.