Champions for Diversity: Lessons from the Field

By Molly Strzelecki - October 04, 2022

Colorful puzzle pieces

Having a workforce comprised of people of all genders, races, and backgrounds can benefit any organization, from increased creativity and productivity to creating a more inclusive environment that bolsters overall employee performance.

We talked to four laboratory scientists who are championing diversity in the laboratory workforce to find out how they’re promoting diversity and what motivates them to take on such an endeavor.

Leading by Example

Marion Cofer, MHS, MLS(ASCP)CM, appreciates a diverse laboratory for the diversity of thought it brings. “It opens the mind up to different thought processes that can be brought to the lab,” he says, “and brings innovation, incorporates new knowledge.”

Mr. Cofer, a medical laboratory scientist working as a generalist at the VA hospital in Augusta, Georgia, as well as in a nuclear laboratory for the Department of Energy, has seen the laboratory expand its diversity starting at the educational level—his graduating class, he says, had students that hailed not just from different parts of the country, but from across the globe. And that has spilled over into the workforce in his laboratories as well.

“We’re creating diversity,” he says. “We’re not just pooling candidates from the nearby, local university, and that’s helping create a diverse environment.”

As for promoting diversity, Mr. Cofer leads by example, by being open to new experiences and appreciating and embracing different points of view. “I want to show how well everyone can work together and how we pull from each other’s abilities,” he says. And he encourages his colleagues to do the same.

“Let’s look outside the box,” Mr. Cofer says. “Let’s see who else is out there, and see who we can bring into the profession.”

Small Steps Can Have a Big Impact

A bench tech, a charge tech, Core Lab supervisor—these are just a few of the roles Crystal McMullen, MLS(ASCP)SBB, has had in her tenure as a laboratory scientist, and currently works as a Laboratory Operations Manager at Orlando Health. While her titles and positions have changed, one thing has not—Ms. McMullen’s passion for sharing knowledge about laboratory careers and playing an active role in recruiting new talent.

Ms. McMullen says she was fortunate to start out working in a diverse lab that was representative of the population it served. But as she traveled to other labs, she noted that her experience was not the norm. She also noticed that as people moved up the career ladder, diversity was drastically lacking. “And I feel like everybody wants to know there’s some kind of career path for them, regardless of their background,” she says.

Seeking to change that narrative, Ms. McMullen knew it would take a combination of activities to do so. Representation at every level of mentorship, or even simply creating an environment that is welcoming and inclusive of diverse people are two areas she focuses on. She also uses social media and networking as recruitment tools, staying active on LinkedIn, for example, to see what other laboratory professionals are doing in other parts of the country. “It gives me ideas when we’re searcing for talent in our lab, of what kinds of backgrounds we’re looking for, and it also helps me make recommendations to other labs,” she says. She recommends that the laboratories, and the profession as a whole, focus on the needs of the talent they’re trying to recruit, whether that’s educational opportunities or better engagement.

“It may not sound like a really big impact on the laboratory field as a whole, but I think that if everybody is really conscious of the need for us to attract diverse talent and to make connections and to keep a pulse on your laboratory community,” she continues, “not just locally, but internationally, it better equips us to make sure we’re increasing diversity as well as addressing laboratory staffing shortages.”

Rekindling Connections, Increasing Awareness

As a member of the admissions committee for the University of Kansas’s Clinical Laboratory Sciences program, Letycia Nuñez-Argote, MPH, CPH, MLS(ASCP)CM, has regular interaction with incoming students, and she also participates in recruiting and advising potential students interested in the program.

“I was happy to be considered for this opportunity because it gives me the ability to be more involved and going out to different communities,” Ms. Nuñez-Argote says about her role in recruitment. While many of their program’s students attend the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence to complete pre-requisite work, the department has also worked on rebuilding connections with local community colleges in Kansas City and throughout the state of Kansas. “Community colleges,” she notes, “have a lot more access to nontraditional students. It’s largely a Hispanic and Black population that we’ve been able to reach out to and we have been able to educate them about the clinical laboratory science professions.”

Ms. Nuñez-Argote’s outreach doesn’t end at the local level. She and two colleagues started a podcast to share their experiences within the clinical lab. “We came together and decided that would be a cool opportunity for all of us to discuss our experiences because we all come from different backgrounds," she says. What’s more, Ms. Nuñez-Argote is actively involved in legislative efforts regarding the laboratory.

“ASCP and ASCLS, and others have very strong advocacy, and what I’ve tried to do is invite people from different backgrounds to become part of that conversation,” she explains. “It’s an avenue for everybody to further the profession.”

Promoting diversity can sometimes be a challenge, Ms. Nuñez-Argote says, because “in the lab, we’re often set in our ways, and people are just used to doing what they’re used to.” She encourages people to think about how much richer their community would be, how much more open and how much more they could achieve together if they were accepting of different ideas, cultures, religions, social and cultural backgrounds. “It’s tough to have this conversation sometimes, but it’s not something we can brush aside,” she says. “I try to help people put themselves in the place of somebody who might not have had the opportunities they did. What can we do to lift them up and reach that potential? That’s a conversation I like to have.”

Staying True to Yourself

When Sean McNair, MPH, CT(ASCP), acts as an ambassador for the laboratory, his go-to is to promote opportunities in the lab to communities that may not have been aware they existed. And he starts with his home base.

“I’m from Brooklyn, so I start by going home,” Mr. McNair, the Cytology Education Coordinator at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, explains. “I go home, I discuss the lab with my friends who are teachers, offer to do career days with their students, and tell them about what I do.” Recently, Mr. McNair adds, his organization also partnered with a local school who brought their students to visit the lab. “I had 40 students from generally underprivileged backgrounds come to Memorial Sloan Kettering and learn about lab careers.”

Mr. McNair also serves as the Program Director for the Hunter College Advance Certificate Program in Cytotechnology, a position that also allows him to champion diversity in the laboratory. “I give my students a voice,” he says. “I tell them that they are representative of diversity but not everyone will understand you. But I do and I will give you a voice in a forum to grow and hear your ideas.” And that starts, he adds, by encouraging students to be themselves.

“I really promote that individuality, and telling them that they are enough, and we are not here to change you in order to fit what’s comfortable for us,” Mr. McNair says. Staying true to yourself is a standard Mr. McNair holds for himself as well. As an African-American male from inner city Brooklyn, he made the decision that he would remain a representative of diversity, and not drastically alter the character traits he acquired from his upbringing in inner-city Brooklyn, on his path to laboratory leadership.

“I have to be the best version of myself,” Mr. McNair says. “And I think that’s worked out because I’m able to communicate with people that this is my view, this is who I am. You are allowed to be different. You are allowed to disagree. But I am rooted in who I am and the authenticity that arises from that is something that is kind of infectious, and I have been able to collaborate across numerous milieus and have more professional success than I ever could have imagined.”

Molly Strzelecki

ASCP Director of Communications + Editor of Critical Values