When former Staff Sgt. Jarret Pendl left the Air Force in 2009, the one-time missile-handling team chief thought his next career stop would be in medicine — but not in the usual way.
“I was looking for a job in the medical field that I could do without a lot of patient contact,” he said.
He liked the idea of a science-based job with good career stability, “but patient contacts can be kind of like retail — you can get an extremely nice patient or an extremely ornery patient, and I didn’t really want to deal with the ornery ones. So helping in an indirect way seemed ideal.”
He now helps, indirectly, as a lead blood bank technologist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Syracuse, New York. It’s part of a broader career field known as medical laboratory science. For those with a head for science and a hands-on mentality, it can be a great fit.
Pendl, who has a bachelor’s degree in medical technology from the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, spends most of his time making sure that blood is compatible — that the type is right, that there are no antibodies — before it’s transfused from one patient to another. It’s a high-stakes role because incompatible blood can be rejected, putting the recipient’s life in jeopardy.
“It is a lot more involved than just A, B and O,” he said.
Blood work is just one aspect of laboratory science. These professionals may be cytologists who look at tissue sections or cells such as Pap smears, or histologists who analyze larger tissue samples. They run sophisticated microscopes and automated computerized analyzers.
“It looks like a college lab, but it’s a lot more complex,” said Karen Myers, director of the Colorado Center for Medical Laboratory Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “Some of the analyzers would be on the level of a sports car, instruments worth $100,000 or more.”
The pace can be frenetic. One scientist may see hundreds of samples a day, “and you can have a lab that has half a million tests a year,” Myers said. “Some will do 5 million tests a year.”
Several degree and certificate routes will earn one a place among the laboratory scientists.
Myers’ program is among about 250 like it in the nation and offers a post-baccalaureate degree.
Students who already have a four-year degree in chemistry, biology or other related fields take a year of coursework, then test to earn a certificate from the American Society for Clinical Pathology, which lets them practice nationwide. (A few states also have their own required certifications.)
At Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, most students arrive with two years of college credits under their belt, then take laboratory-specific classes to finish a bachelor’s degree in the field. The typical laboratory scientist with a B.S. starts out earning $40,000 to $50,000 a year, although that can vary by location.
“Rural areas tend to pay a lot more than urban areas, because there is such a shortage,” said Upstate Assistant Professor Jim Vossler.
You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to start working in the field — an associate degree can be enough for an entry-level job. Those who go on to earn a master’s degree typically take on supervisory and administrative roles.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all degree, said Vossler, who chairs the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences.
Rather, those interested in laboratory science tend to gravitate toward one or another of the specific disciplines.
“Within the clinical laboratory there are sections: a hematology lab, a genetics lab, a chemistry lab, a microbiology lab,” Vossler said. “If you like instrumentation, if you are a technology person, then you may go into the chemistry laboratory, which is highly automated. Or if you like a lot of hands-on work, you might go into another area, something like molecular diagnostics and microbiology.”
Depending on your inclination, coursework might cover hematology, immunology, medical microbiology, clinical chemistry, immunology and genetics.
Regardless of chosen field, those leaving the military don’t need any particular medical experience. Myers has seen an MP, a helicopter repairman and an electronics expert all go through her program.
It helps to have a technical mind, perhaps a military occupational specialty in engineering or computer science, though it’s not required.
“A lot of our work is computer-driven, so we are sitting in front of big instruments feeding through samples of blood,” said Maribeth L. Flaws, chair and program director in the Department of Medical Laboratory Science at Illinois’ Rush University Medical Center.
Still, it isn’t merely mechanical. “Our job then is to look at the results that the instrument is putting out and make sure they make sense,” she said. “You are always going to get an answer, but then you have to decide whether it makes sense.
“Can a patient have a glucose of zero? Well, if so, they would be dead, so that should mean something to you. Maybe the specimen was sitting around, and now you have to take some action.”
Most of the time the samples are just that — samples, anonymous bits of tissue attached to numbers, readings or computer results. But not always. Sometimes Flaws will process a sample and know with certainty that she holds in her hands the cell tissue of a dying man. How does she deal with knowing these sorts of things?
Well, she admits, sometimes it’s a good thing to never know the patient personally.