Transitioning from the Lab to Academia: One MLS’s Perspective

By Diane Valentin - November 16, 2022

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For students in a medical laboratory science program, it is important that the instructor teaching the clinical courses (prior to clinical rotations) is an experienced medical laboratory scientist (MLS). It is not enough for the instructor to teach hematology or clinical microbiology by reciting it from a textbook or taking it from nonclinical laboratory research. To engage future MLSs, instructors should be able to convey the technicalities, nuances, and emotional commitment unique to the clinical laboratory. Training to become a teacher of the clinical laboratory sciences is, in fact, learned in the laboratory.

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Medical Technology in 1999 and landed my first job in a clinical microbiology lab. Even in my earliest laboratory experiences, I realized that in one form or another, we are all teachers. We are teachers when we explain to a physician the results of his or her patient’s lab tests or instruct a patient on how to collect a specimen. We are teachers when we are training a new hire or instructing an MLS student during his or her clinical rotations. Teaching will always be a part of the job. I always thought I’d someday move into the teaching profession. I thought a more practical route would be to obtain a state teaching license and teach science in elementary or high school. Twelve years into my laboratory career, I decided to obtain a master’s degree in biomedical informatics with a focus in bioinformatics in order to serve a couple of purposes: to help with next-generation sequencing data that my laboratory director wanted to use for KRAS testing, and to help me become a more desirable candidate for a supervisory position. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was a desirable candidate for academia in the MLS program as well because I obtained this degree.

I stayed in the field of clinical microbiology for 16 years. I loved the job and still do. I loved the excitement, enjoyment, and elation I got from helping physicians help their patients. I loved the comradery, the team effort, and the positive work ethic needed to stay on task. Of course there were challenges, but this is true with any job.

In March 2016, on a whim, I applied for a faculty position at my alma mater, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. I thought, “What do I have to lose? If I get the position, I have everything to gain. If I don’t get the position, then it’s a story to tell and lesson learned.” After going through the proper channels and doing due diligence with phone interviews, in-person interviews with the whole biology department (where the MLS program is housed), and then, finally, a demonstration of my teaching skills in front of the biology department members and graduate students, I was awarded the position. This was a big shock to me because I had never taught professionally, but I did show my enthusiasm for the field and desire to teach during the interview and for conveying my clinical laboratory know-how via the teaching demonstration. I started my teaching position the first week of September 2016.

The desire to teach was not the only reason I chose to leave the lab. Part of it was the growing frustration in the inability to gain a higher-level position. This may have been unique to my place of employment, but I feel it was due to high turnover coupled with trying to keep a trained and vetted MLS in a particular specialty, in addition to difficulty finding quality MLSs to fill vacant positions. I eventually was promoted to lead technologist, which kept me at the bench, but also I felt like I could have done very good work in a supervisory position. Part of wanting to become a supervisor was to challenge myself in familiar territory, become more involved in laboratory management, meet people outside of the lab, and make a real difference in the daily goings-on. Also, it would have meant better quality of life, since the position did not require weekend or holiday work. Alas, it was not meant to be.

Crossing Over from Bench to Classroom
Since I started in September 2016, I have taught five courses and/or laboratory components: Basic Concepts in Medical Laboratory Science, Clinical Microbiology, Human Parasitology, Hematology Laboratory, and Microbial Science Laboratory. Some courses I co-taught, others I adopted from another faculty member, and still others I developed on my own. As I’ve moved through time and the new field of teaching, I have realized that I can transfer many skills from my work in the lab to my work in academia.

As many of you know, a clinical course is, oftentimes, accompanied by a laboratory section. This is where my bread and butter lies. It brings me back to the days of teaching MLS students on the bench, training a new hire, training a new testing method, and even writing lab procedures and protocols. I still need to teach the basics one step at a time, just like I would in a laboratory protocol, but in addition, I get the pleasure of informing the students what it will be like when they are really on the bench in the MLS profession.

Another transferable skill is the recording of information, either on paper or in the computer, and staying mentally organized. The MLS career lends itself to the acquisition of computer skills and keeping patient information organized as you move through your day. Teaching requires tasks such as recording notes during graded presentations and inputting grades into a learning database. It also requires me to keep mental notes on which student needs more tending to and who can work more independently. Additionally, I am responsible for ordering supplies as I plan a lab a few weeks or a month in advance.

Sometimes, an MLS may need to create charts, record quality control information in a computer database, or track patient information through time. To keep tabs on student progress, I keep an Excel sheet to calculate the exam average and total class average, which gives me an idea of where the class as a whole lies. I can even create tables and graphs to visually track a class’s progress.

One skill I did not possess when entering this field is creating media from scratch. But after many years of following protocols and calling tech services, in addition to knowing the microbiology media lingo, I can confidently ask for assistance from the vendor.

Some pleasant surprises have come to light since I joined academia. I have more energy. Many hours of lesson planning require me to sit in front of a computer and read textbooks or research journal articles, rather than spend time running in the lab, answering phones, fixing instruments, and the like. This allows me more energy to devote to my family and complete some of my own coursework. I have weekends and holidays off. I can make my own hours as long as I fulfill all of the expectations of the position such as teaching my classes, maintaining office hours, attending meetings, and participating in faculty service. I have a bit of freedom in creating lessons, which is different from following strict protocols within the lab. Also, I can work from home if I need to.

Of course, there are unexpected pros and cons to the position. For example, since I can work from home, I can prep for classes or labs on weekends and holidays. Also, since I was not formally trained in teaching, I made it a priority to take a course in lesson planning and creating effective syllabi. Additionally, being in academia can be a lonely profession. I may spend several days planning a lesson before I realize I haven’t talked to my fellow faculty members for days. I may forget to get up to take a drink of water or even say good morning to my co-workers because of all the grading I have to catch up on. I may be asked to split my time between preparing for teaching and preparing for a committee meeting. I need to have good time management skills or, at least, be well organized. One way I keep on task is to keep a small binder that is separated by course with sticky tabs. I take this with me to every class and place notes in it, such as student absences, what worked or did not work in class that day, supplies needed for the lab, and any notes for next class.

One of the best parts of being in academia, just like being an MLS, is being able to touch so many lives at one time. I may have a class of four or 40. Each student is different and brings a new perspective to the profession. It is with pride that I get to spread the message of MLS to non-MLS majors. Some students transfer into the MLS program after I teach them or talk to them about the profession. Being an MLS in the lab has allowed me to help so many people in just one shift. I am grateful that now I can use the academia platform to spread my knowledge and expertise to the next generation of scientists.

Diane Valentin

Instructor in the Medical Laboratory Science Program

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