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VOL. 128 | NO. 183 | Thursday, September 19, 2013

Endless Opportunities

Grants help women enter booming medical lab science field

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

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Although she didn’t think of it this way at the time, Desiree Evans proved as a little girl that she understood science had value on several levels, including monetary.

A new grant is aimed at putting a career in medical laboratory science within reach for minority women at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I was 9 or 10,” Evans recalled, “and I asked my mom for a microscope for Christmas.”

Today Evans, 27, is a second-year medical laboratory science student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Evans, who is juggling school, work and family, lives in Cordova with her husband and 6-month-old son. It’s a big load to carry, but she’s getting some help through a grant from the UT Alliance of Women Philanthropists.

Linda Williford Pifer, a professor in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at UTHSC, and department chair Kathy Kenwright wrote the grant, which is aimed at putting a career in medical laboratory science within reach for promising minority female students such as Evans.

The grant was for $15,500, and 14 students are receiving money toward books and supplies, including medical scrubs. The Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at UTHSC is the oldest medical laboratory sciences program in continuous operation in the United States.

“(The grant) helps because it means I don’t have to work as much and take time away from family,” said Evans, who works on campus as a student assistant.

But the grant’s mission is hardly limited to making it easier to get through school.

“Job opportunities for medical lab scientists are endless,” Kenwright said.

Pifer said some young women aren’t able to pursue education without such assistance. For those women there are “long-terms effects to not being trained,” Pifer said.

As of May 2010, the median annual wage of medical laboratory technologists was $56,130, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The demand for medical laboratory scientists – the term is used interchangeably with technologists – is expected to grow by at least 13 percent through 2020, according to the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Sciences.

The unemployment rate for medical laboratory scientists is under 2 percent, which is matched only by that of pharmacy technicians. Some states require passing an exam and being licensed; Tennessee is one of them.

As with nursing, the job demand is nationwide. So it’s possible to go just about anywhere and continue a career. Evans said her family may move closer to extended family in Ohio, noting, “It gives you great job security.”

Many of the jobs (52 percent) will be in hospitals, but whether in a hospital, medical or diagnostic laboratory or physician’s office, the field offers many opportunities to specialize.

“Infectious disease testing is exploding,” Kenwright said.

In general, medical laboratory scientists can expect to do the following:

  • Analyze body fluids and tissue samples to determine normal and abnormal findings.
  • Collect and study blood samples for use in transfusions.
  • Operate sophisticated lab equipment such as microscopes and cell counters.
  • Use computerized instruments capable of performing multiple tests at one time.
  • Log data from medical tests.
  • Discuss results and findings with doctors.

Both Pifer and Kenwright have been in the field for decades. Today, Pifer only gets into the laboratory when she’s teaching her students, but her past work included HIV-related research and she admits she sometimes misses the lab.

“There are days you kind of get a hankering to rattle some test tubes,” Pifer said.

Don’t, however, take that statement to mean she has a light approach to the work medical laboratory scientists do. Far from it.

“If they mess up in the lab, it could kill you or make you very sick,” she said.

Thus, would-be medical laboratory technologists must be concentrated, able to fight both mental and physical fatigue – they could be on their feet their entire shift – and not easily distracted.

Television is now full of people running around in white lab coats and finding automatic answers like they’re doing magic tricks, but Kenwright said that’s not reality.

“It doesn’t work like on the TV shows,” she said. “Like on ‘House,’ the doctor goes into the lab and has results in 30 minutes. That’s a misconception. We’re kind of a hidden profession.”

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