What a Year: COVID-19 Highlights Work of Medical Lab Professionals

Two people look through microscopes in a lab.
Two people look through microscopes in a lab.
The Michigan Tech's COVID-19 testing lab’s anniversary is April 22 and Medical Laboratory Professionals Week is April 18-24.
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The first anniversary of Michigan Tech’s COVID-19 testing lab comes during the annual Medical Laboratory Professionals Week.

One year ago, if you’d asked the people responsible for setting up the COVID-19 testing lab at Michigan Technological University whether the lab would still be running samples today, the answer would have been, “Unlikely.” But 365 days later, the lab is still processing tests, and the backbone of the lab are the students and staff who keep operations running smoothly day in and day out.

“When we began, I thought this was a two-month project that would end when testing was generally more widely available,” said David Reed, vice president for research at Michigan Tech. “Then toward summer, it became clear that if we were going to bring students back to campus, we would have to have testing capacity and an entire program of testing, contact tracing and support. And we will run until we do not need that any longer.”

Some of the students who have worked in the lab come from Michigan Tech’s Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) program, where students 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.

Three people who are wearing masks, protective eyewear, and a lab coats stand in front of the vent hoods in the COVID-19 lab at Michigan Tech.
A number of MLS students have worked in the Michigan Tech COVID-19 lab. Their program prepared them well to participate in the University and community sample testing effort. Image Credit: Claire Danielson

In honor of both the COVID-19 testing lab’s anniversary April 22 and Medical Laboratory Professionals Week from April 18-24 , a number of Michigan Tech MLS students and recent program graduates shared reflections on their experiences in the program.

Made from Scratch

The MLS program has contributed in a tremendous way to 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.

“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,” Reed said. “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.”

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
junior, MLS program student and COVID-19 lab student staff member

I have gained a new perspective on how a medical lab works by seeing the path a sample takes from collection all the way to reporting the results. Handling patient information and communicating with health care professionals has boosted my confidence and my ability to work efficiently in critical situations.

Delilah Hauswirth
junior, MLS program student and COVID-19 lab student staff member

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.

A person's gloved hand writes notes. Next to the writing hand are petri dishes marked with different samples.
Medical bacteriology is one of the classes students majoring in Medical Laboratory Science take as part of their studies.

“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.”

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, the desire to work with people and a plan to work in the field of health care.

“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,” said Claire Danielson, MLS clinical practicum coordinator. “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.”

As a hands-on learner, and as someone who has a passion for life sciences and medicine, MLS fit my dreams and career goals. I also fell in love with microbiology, and I hope to use my MLS skills to cultivate a career to explore the world of germs!

Emma Berends
junior, MLS student

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
senior, MLS student

The Practicum Experience

The MLS program at Michigan Tech has a 100% 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 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 program 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. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70% of medical decisions depend on laboratory test results, demonstrating the important role of clinical laboratories in today's health care system.

There is definitely a learning curve to laboratory work, so getting guided experience was immensely beneficial to me.

Sarah LewAllen ‘20
MLS program graduate

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 program graduate

And beyond going on to working in a lab after graduation, the options for MLS program graduates are broad. The students sometimes pursue careers outside the medical laboratory setting, including 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
senior, MLS program student entering medical school in the fall

 

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.

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