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Outside the Lab Training and education, Profession

Career Snapshots with Jim Payne

Jim Payne
Medical Laboratory Assisting and Phlebotomy Instructor
WEMOCO Career and Technical Education Center, New York, USA

Tell us about your career as a medical laboratory instructor…

I have a unique background in that I am a medical lab assistant and phlebotomy instructor at the WEMOCO Career and Technical Education Centre in Spencerport, New York. Our program gives juniors and seniors in high school the opportunity to spend two and a half hours a day, five days a week, learning how to work in a laboratory.

The first year, they learn a wide variety of basic laboratory skills – anything from using a micropipetter to a binocular compound microscope. They use a spectrophotometer, do titrations, use pH meters, and even make their own soap to learn basic organic chemistry. They get into phlebotomy; they learn (on fake arms) to draw blood from the antecubital region, but also from the hand, the fingers, and so on. In their first year, we spend 40 hours in one week drawing blood on real patients for real samples. That allows them to sit for certification in phlebotomy at the end of the first year. They also learn some basic anatomy and physiology.

In their second year, the students learn microbiology, chemistry, urinalysis, genetics and genetic testing (restriction digestion, cloning, PCR, bacterial transformation), some bioinformatics skills, and they get certified in first aid. They also spend 80 hours working in our local medical laboratories as lab assistants, giving them an opportunity to explore the career even more – and get certified in medical lab assisting at the end of the year.

It’s a great opportunity for students to gain skills, learn some college-level content now to help them more easily navigate college, and know whether or not this is what they want to do – which is huge. Most people I’ve talked to in the medical lab industry never actually got the opportunity to explore. They found out about this career path when a college counselor suggested it or they took an aptitude test. Very rarely do they go into college knowing this is exactly what they want to do. My students work on site for over 120 hours, gain laboratory skills, and meet people from industry. We regularly have top people in our industry – places like the CDC, NIH, ASCP, and ASCLS – talk to our students so that they can go, “I know I want to go there – and I know one way to get there.” It’s hugely helpful.

You built your educational program from the ground up – how?

Not knowing what I wanted to do with my career, I worked in research for a couple of years after graduating with a marine biology degree. Eventually, I decided I wanted to be a high school science teacher. It was hard to find an open position but, after a couple of years, an opportunity arose in our local Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), which is an umbrella under which several small districts pool educational resources so that they can do expensive things like my program. I thought, “That sounds cool; I might be able to combine my love of science and research with being a teacher.” I applied, got the job, and started two weeks before school began. Little did I know that I didn’t have anything – no beakers, no test tubes, no curriculum, and no connections with local medical laboratories.

Eventually, I put in a rush order for some basic things I know I could use not matter what we ended up doing. That’s when I found out that a lot of stuff was backordered. I didn’t get lab benches until November! I did get a microcentrifuges, some microcentrifuge tubes, and a couple of micropipetters. “What can I do with this? How can I make this into something? I don’t have any other materials.” I ended up developing a whole lab using Kool-Aid; I make concentrated juice and the students do a serial dilution with it to see the decrease in the color of the Kool-Aid. But also, if you spin it, you see a smaller and smaller sugar pellet. Then, the students learn how to extract the supernatant with micropipetters – a technique they use when working with DNA. I developed a bunch of those labs purely out of survival over the first couple of months and I still use them today because, if someone makes a mistake, they can just try again. We can make as much Kool-Aid as they need. It’s a great way for them to build skills and confidence. When we do PCR – which is really just advanced micropipetting – they’re more skilled than I was when I finished college, because they’ve done micropipetting for months and know exactly how to do it.

How can others increase interest and recruitment in the field?

Try to connect with local and regional laboratories and college programs that can support the program. Find out your state’s requirements – standards, guidelines, what students are and aren’t allowed to do. Make sure you have enough space to build your lab. Then, start to get equipment. It’s a step-by-step process, but it can be done; in fact, I’m helping several organizations do it right now.

Additionally, make sure that you are getting into high schools. I’m speaking to 80 students at a charter school on Friday, where I will explain different career paths and do some activities with them that are more advanced than they would normally see in high school, so that they get excited about this as a job opportunity. If labs are able to set up field trips, you don’t have to wait for a science teacher to come contact you; you can go to them and say, “We have this great laboratory and we’d love to have your students come out. Here are some dates and times.” You can even bring swag with the lab’s logo on it. It’s all part of getting out there and raising interest.

I had one student who was pretty certain she was going to be a pathologists’ assistant. Through our program, she had the opportunity to spend eight hours at the pathology lab during her spring break, see actual organs that had come out of surgery, and watch the pathologists’ assistants dissect them and turn them into slides. She got to sit down with one of the top pathologists in my area, who used the teaching scope to explain to her what different slides looked like and what she was seeing in terms of the pathology. Then, she spent another two and a half hours at a gross conference with a medical examiner, a pathologists’ assistant, and a resident. She even got to see a human brain! Not everyone can handle the sights, sounds, or smells of the pathology lab – but my student said it was great. Now she knows that this is something she really wants to do.

What’s your favorite part of your work?

Seeing students grow from having no skills to being sought after by industry and academia. At the start, they get excited about a team-building exercise involving celery and colored water, because they get to use a stir bar to mix in their food coloring. By the end, they know what they’re doing and they have a ton of technical, professional, and personal skills that will help them get and keep jobs. They also come out with 120 hours of work experience, including the knowledge of how to work safely with real patient samples. The growth piece is huge; it makes all the tough work of setting up these agreements with local colleges and labs worthwhile.

What’s the hardest part of your work?

The recruitment! We pull from 12 high schools across nine districts and I have to make sure we have enough students coming in every year to keep the program going. For a long time, we struggled with that, but we’re getting better at it. Some of the school districts that aren’t even in our zone of influence are thinking about sending students to us, which is exciting. We’re starting to get a lot of local leaders interested in coming out to see our program – and, when they get here, they’re shocked at what high school students are doing. We give them their own little ID badge and lab coat and my students teach them how to do urinalysis, make a bacterial smear, do a blood smear, load an agarose gel… When they see the students’ confidence, they become huge advocates for us. My hope is that we can get more and more people advocating for us, so that more and more students want to come.

What’s the most unique experience you’ve had in your work?

We do pondwater experiments. There’s tons of stuff in the water – rotifers, Euglena, Paramecium, bacteria, all sorts of things – but we had never seen a tardigrade. One of my students said, “I want to find a tardigrade.” I didn’t think those existed in that pond, but I said, “I know they tend to be around moss; if you want to try something, go ahead.” So she went and found some moss, put in some water, and nothing came of it. She did a little more research and ended up finding a tardigrade in the sample – and she got so excited. She was jumping around, bringing everyone over to look, and using our little microscope camera to take videos of this thing. It was cool because it was something she did on her own.

We had a time where we were doing a bacterial transformation experiment and suddenly got tons of contamination. We couldn’t read the plates or find out how many transformants we had. I said, “Okay, you have all the skills necessary to figure this out. We’re going to go through all the points where something could have been contaminated – all the way back to the original source bottle.” They did Gram stains, cultures, and additional experiments to determine that the original vial from the company was likely contaminated. I went back to the company and asked, “Did you have a problem with that lot number? We think it might have been contaminated.” “Oh, yeah, we found out that it was contaminated.” And my students were able to prove scientifically that this had happened.

What one key thing would you like to share about what you do?

I would love to have young career lab professionals and pathologists become advocates. I started becoming an advocate in November 2020, when I realized I was so focused on my program and trying to grow it that I wasn’t reaching out beyond my local laboratories. I realized that I needed to be out there regularly posting on social media and trying to make connections with people. Now I go to churches, high schools, community groups, anyone who can be influenced to let them know this industry exists and it’s amazing.

We are often seen as a “hidden profession.” A lot of people take that as a badge of pride, but if you’re a hidden profession, people don’t think about you as a career path. I certainly didn’t. Had I known about the medical laboratory, I would have gone into it – but I didn’t. I think that has happened to a lot of people; they think, “If I want to help people and I’m interested in medicine, I can be a nurse, doctor, dentist, that kind of thing.” Almost no one says, “I want to go into the medical laboratory,” even though it may be the best choice for them. The fact that they can help a lot of people without needing a doctorate is huge – and there are higher levels you can achieve if you want to. For somebody who is interested in becoming a pathologist, a medical lab degree certainly helps you understand the laboratory a lot better.

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