Labelling a bag of B positive donated blood.

Behind Doctors and Diagnoses Are Medical Laboratory Scientists

Michigan Tech's medical laboratory science program has a 100% job placement rate and the field is growing 3% faster than other industries.

Michigan Tech’s medical laboratory science program boasts 100 percent job placement in a field that’s growing by leaps and bounds.

One year ago, if we had asked the people responsible for setting up Michigan Tech's COVID-19 testing lab whether it would still be running samples today, the answer would have been, “Unlikely.” But 18 months later, the lab is still processing tests, and forming its backbone are the students and staff who keep operations running smoothly day in and day out.

Two people look at blood sample gel cards in a laboratory.
Shay Ekdahl (left) and Claire Danielson read gel card reactions in blood bank.

Some of the students who have worked in the lab come from the University’s medical laboratory science (MLS) program, where they learn the skills to become key members of medical teams, detecting disease and other conditions by performing critical chemical, hematological, immunologic, microscopic, and bacteriological analyses on blood, tissues, and bodily fluids.

“MLS is an excellent undergraduate degree for those interested in pursuing medical school,” said Claire Danielson, MLS program director. “Alternatively, if you are interested in the medical field, but would like to work behind the scenes and have an important impact on a patient’s diagnosis, the MLS program is still an excellent choice. Our goal in the program is to educate and prepare students to be successful in their practicum and go on to be accredited medical laboratory scientists in the clinical field.”

No Trouble Finding Jobs—or Making an Impact

Medical laboratory scientists play a vital role in health care and have helped hospitals and clinics tremendously throughout the pandemic by running thousands of COVID-19 tests daily. Beyond COVID-19, 70 percent of a patient’s medical diagnosis—whether it’s an autoimmune disorder, cancer, or something else entirely—comes from lab results performed by medical laboratory scientists, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Currently, there is a nationwide shortage of medical laboratory scientists, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be 25,900 available jobs in the field every year during the next decade—a growth rate 3 percent higher than other occupations. 

Michigan Tech will help fill this gap with students graduating from our MLS program—which is accredited by the gold-standard National Accreditation Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) and has 100 percent job placement for all graduates. After completing a clinical practicum, students are able to work in the field right away and earn a national average of $54,180 per year.

A person wearing a facial covering and a lab coat places a gel card in a centrifuge.
Olivia McClellan prepares to centrifuge a gel card for antibody typing in blood bank.

MTU’s COVID-19 testing laboratory has processed nearly 35,000 samples since April 2020. In honor of that enormous impact on the well-being of the Michigan community, a number of Michigan Tech MLS students and recent program graduates shared reflections on their experiences in the program.

The Ultimate in Experiential Learning

The MLS program has contributed in a tremendous way to the ongoing operation of the COVID-19 lab in terms of expertise, and building a diagnostic lab from the ground up in mere weeks was a feat of perseverance.

"Working in the COVID lab has provided me with experience I would not have been able to gain elsewhere. Working with real patient samples allowed me to experience the gravity of patient care. I was also fortunate to be surrounded by phenomenal scientists to look up to as positive role models."Jenna Disser, senior MLS student and COVID-19 lab student staff member

“We had the necessary equipment, we had brilliant and committed people, and we had enthusiasm, but outside of MLS, no one really had any idea of what it took to run a laboratory that would do human diagnostic testing,” said David Reed, vice president for research at Michigan Tech. “From quality control, to data security, to tracking patient records and reporting results, we were really engaged in one huge exercise in learning and problem solving.”

The COVID-19 lab brought together people from different backgrounds and specialties who were united by a common purpose: serving the community in the western Upper Peninsula.

“The most rewarding part of establishing and operating the lab has been seeing vastly different groups of people come together for the common cause to help our community,” said Caryn Heldt, director of the Health Research Institute and professor of chemical engineering. “I have made friends with people that I would not have likely ever encountered and for that I am grateful.”

"My favorite part about our program is how many skill sets you need: You have to problem solve like an engineer, have the heart for patients, and need interpersonal communication skills to work with other health care professionals."Kailee Kovach ’20, MLS graduate
Two people wearing lab coats and latex gloves speak to each other while sitting at a table in a laboratory with bacterial cultures on the table.
Zachary Smith (left) and Erik Larson read biochemical reactions to identify clinically significant bacteria in medical bacteriology.

A Passion for People (and Sometimes Germs)

For many of the students in the MLS program, the draw to a fast-paced lab career is equal parts fascination with microorganisms and biology, desire to work with people, and a plan to work in the field of health care.

"Whether it be hematology, microbiology, or clinical chemistry, I realized my passion was to become an integral part of a diagnostic team and aid in the medical well-being of patients’ lives."Mara Hackman ’21, MLS graduate

“Our MLS program students are truly excited to come into lab each day to see what organisms they will be working with or what new blood bank technique they get to practice,” Danielson said. “Their passion and curiosity shines. When the COVID lab opened on campus, our students were able to apply their knowledge to directly impact patient care in a positive way. Everything we had taught them, from preanalytical skills to the importance of HIPAA laws, came to play. The students were a perfect fit for the job, as they were prepared but also had the opportunity to learn new things that they will carry into their practicum and future careers.”

Student looking at a sample in a lab.
Devyn Fleischer reads agglutination reactions in blood bank.

The Practicum Experience

The MLS program at Michigan Tech has a 100 percent job placement rate and students are successful starting careers because of the active learning that occurs during their clinical practicum. In their practicum, they apply what they have learned on campus in a real medical laboratory setting. After completing their practicum, MLS students are eligible to become board-certified medical laboratory scientists through the American Society of Clinical Pathology.

"My time in the MLS program at Tech was amazing and I loved every second of the theoretical knowledge I was being taught. My practicum helped me put all of the pieces together for the tests and why you do them. You don't really fully understand all of the blood bank tests, for example, until you do them for a real patient and watch a real medical laboratory scientist work through a procedural flow chart. My practicum taught me how to be a real clinical scientist and make decisions in a real hospital setting. My manager told me, not even halfway through my internship, that they wanted to hire me, and I was hired on part-time before I was finished. If you want a job in this field and you do a practicum, you will probably be offered a job before you’re done, or you can go find one wherever you want to live."Kailee Hamre ’20, MLS graduate

A practical attitude and critical thinking are important skills in many professions, and require an extra level of precision for laboratory professionals, where diagnoses can literally change lives in a moment.

"My practicum was just as important in preparing me for my career as my years in the classroom. It allowed me to hone in on laboratory techniques, learn to communicate with doctors and nurses, and how to prioritize tasks in busy, high-stress situations. The practicum made the transition into my full-time position at MidMichigan Medical Center in Midland seamless."Jamie Brisson ’20, MLS graduate
Watch My Michigan Tech: Becca Riffe video
Preview image for My Michigan Tech: Becca Riffe video

My Michigan Tech: Becca Riffe

Becca Riffe, an undergraduate medical laboratory sciences major, talks about why she chose her major and Michigan Tech. The short answer? She learns biology with her hands and in actual medical settings. But it's the community and networking with peers and professors that make her one happy Husky.

And the options for MLS program graduates are broad. Beyond going to work in a lab, the students sometimes pursue careers in forensics, infection control and in the laboratory instrumentation industry. Medical school is one route Michigan Tech students choose; students who pursue this option coming from the MLS program have a leg up on understanding what happens to the tests doctors order for their patients.

"I feel extremely well prepared for medical school, as I will have a strong foundation in both physiological processes within the body as well as the medical lab tests done to assess these processes. My favorite part of the program aside from the curriculum was the faculty. You feel like family by the end of your time on campus. I will most definitely miss MTU and everyone in my degree program, but I am confident that I am ready to take the next step because of them."Karmyn Polakowski ’21, MLS graduate
(entered medical school this fall) 

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.