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Outside the Lab Training and education, Profession

What’s POPpin’?

It was past seven in the evening and I still had a pile of specimens to gross.

I was not the only resident, but one of our pathology assistants and one of my co-residents were also working late to deliver patient care without delays. There was no sudden influx of specimens, nor did we routinely stay that late, but this burden of work rested with us due to insufficient staffing in our labs. Though this continued workforce shortage won’t come as a surprise to people in the field, I was a relative novice at the time. With no quick fix in sight, and with the medical students I knew demonstrating a lack of interest in pathology, I decided to take a small grassroots step toward addressing the issue, hoping it would translate to change at higher levels.

I contacted my local high school and offered an introductory session on pathology and laboratory medicine to their students, which the faculty gladly accepted. Having immigrated to the United States after medical school, this was my first visit to an American high school – and, although it was nerve-racking, I received an enthusiastic welcome, followed by an engaging discussion and an opportunity to clarify misconceptions.

The session aimed to increase awareness about pathology as a field and its importance in patient care, laboratory workflow, career options via medical or non-medical pathways, and our specialty’s future directions. Its success was validated by follow-ups from students and subsequent sessions with incoming classes in following years. One thing I learned during these sessions is that it’s vital to use easy-to-understand terminology and professional, but casual language to connect with teenagers. The “POP” branding for the pathology outreach program was an attempt to do just that.

Recently, we expanded the program to more schools in Chicago and Michigan in collaboration with the pathology student interest group at Michigan State University – and now, we’d like to introduce you to the program and describe the positive effects it is already having.

Casey P. Schukow and Aadil Ahmed

From the students
 

Sophia Martinez-Whitman and Kaitlyn Mckinley: Though we both feel that we have a baseline understanding of pathology through our own personal research, we were taken back by the many career paths offered in pathology after our high school Health Occupations class participated in the Pathology Outreach Program (POP) with its founder, Aadil Ahmed. We are certain our classmates were as positively impacted as we were, given their frequent and active feedback during the program.

KM: I have always been interested in a career in medicine. From very early on, I knew I wanted to be a part of something where I could create a positive impact. None of my older family members had careers in the medical field, so I had no insight into the possible pathways. I first focused on pediatrics because it is a field often shown on television or in classrooms on career days. It was not until my first science camp before freshman year of high school that I was exposed to more careers and fields. Though the camp focused mainly on more common areas of medicine, I first heard of pathology there when a group leader studying to become a forensic pathologist briefly mentioned the career to us. Other than that, I don’t recall ever hearing or learning about pathology until POP visited my class in 2022.

From freshman to senior year in high school, I took on the responsibility of learning more about pathology – but I specifically focused on forensic pathology because of my prior exposure. In 2020, I had the opportunity to complete a research project on the process of bereavement, which increased my passion for the field. The project taught me that the impact I wanted to have in medicine was providing families with closure and assistance after losing a loved one. In 2021, my senior capstone project focused on the medicolegal system, specifically forensic pathology. At the end of the project, I knew I could one day see this impact through. It was only thanks to my independent studies that I learned how I could become a part of the change I hope to see in the future.

When POP was presented to my class, I learned that there are many careers in pathology outside forensics. Without POP, I don’t think I would have known about the different ways to enter this field and the range of different levels of education those careers require. I also heard my other classmates mentioning how interactive and eye-opening it was for them. Only a small number of students knew what pathologists actually did – and even fewer considered a career in the field – before the presentation. I was already passionate about a specific specialty in pathology, but POP taught me about the multitude of options I have if my passions shift in future.

SMW: Like many others during the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself in quarantine with a surplus of free time. An aspiring disease researcher, I read numerous articles discussing the healthcare positions involved in studying disease and learned that pathologists held a vital role in research on COVID-19 and beyond. Having been previously unaware of pathology, I tried to research the field in more depth – but I found the information online slightly confusing and not easily interpretable with the limited knowledge of a high school student. Nonetheless, I worked hard to develop what I then felt was a better understanding of the work of a pathologist.

When Aadil came to my Health Occupations class in 2022, nearly two years after my first exposure to pathology, I realized how little I understood about the vast responsibilities of a pathologist or laboratory medicine professional. Many topics he highlighted, such as the pathway to becoming a pathologist and other positions that partake in pathology research, were completely new to me. Discussing this information with my classmates after his presentation, I learned that I was not the only one who felt completely unaware of pathologists’ impact in healthcare. Now, I feel that there is much more to learn about what pathology has to offer – which is why outreach programs at the high school level are so necessary (1).

Proactive outreach to medical students is a key part of pathology recruitment (2) – but it’s not the only part. To increase awareness of pathology and laboratory medicine professions in general, a broader approach is needed. Early exposure to healthcare fields is essential in guiding high school students’ career aspirations (3); my fellow students and I feel that outreach programs such as POP would greatly increase the chances of students entering the field. Though organized data is being synthesized based on survey data and feedback from students who attended POP, our personal reflections are testimony to the benefits of this program and will hopefully inspire readers to join or establish outreach programs of their own.

The aim of POP is not just to attract future generations into pathology, but to ensure that these students, throughout their lives, will be informed consumers of medicine and catalysts of change for our field.

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  1. JM Rohr et al., “Teaching high school students about pathology:  development of a secondary school-focused enrichment course in pathology and physiology,” Am J Clin Pathol, 145, 617 (2016). PMID: 27124933.
  2. WY Naritoku et al., “Enhancing the pipeline of pathologists in the United States,” Acad Pathol, 8, 23742895211041725 (2021). PMID: 34595333.
  3. B Muncan et al., “From high school to hospital: how early exposure to healthcare affects adolescent career ideas,” Int J Med Educ, 7, 370 (2016). PMID: 27816962.
About the Authors
Sophia Martinez-Whitman

Student at Fordham University, Bronx, New York, USA.


Kaitlyn Mckinley

Student at Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, USA.


Casey P. Schukow

DO Graduate of Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Detroit, Michigan, USA.


Aadil Ahmed

Assistant Professor of Pathology, Section of Dermatology, Rush Medical College, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

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