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So You Want to Be...a Medical Technologist

A degree in laboratory science is a ticket that can take you far

Laura Listro was a biology major at Emmanuel College in Boston when she signed on for a part-time position at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), hoping it would help her decide what she wanted from a career. “Aside from being a doctor, I didn’t know what other options were available in medicine.”

At MGH, Listro became curious about the hospital’s medical labs. Once she learned more about “working on the bench,” as hospital lab work is called, she knew the direction she wanted her career to take.

As a medical technologist, Listro performed a wide range of laboratory tests that would help determine the nature of a patient’s illness as well as the progress of recovery. By analyzing samples of blood, body fluids, and tissue and using sophisticated microscopes, cell counters, and other laboratory equipment, she would test for illness such as anemia, leukemia, and heart and kidney disease.

“Even the most common lab tests have certain complexities,” says Susan Leclair, chancellor and professor of medical laboratory science at UMass-Dartmouth. “The complete blood count test, or CBC, which every patient receives, is actually a collection of 20 tests in which red and white blood cells and platelets are evaluated for quality.”

Listro worked her way up through the lab, becoming a senior medical technologist and then the chief technician. Today, she is associate director of staff development at MGH.

“There is a huge shortage in the profession and, for those who are certified, there are many jobs available,” says Listro. The best path into the medical technology field, she advises, is to find a bachelor’s program that is specifically designed for medical laboratory science. Not many schools have these programs, but some of the best are in our region. UMass-Dartmouth, UMass-Lowell, Northeastern University, and the University of Vermont (UVM) have programs that Listro recommends.

“Medical lab science is an indispensable part of medicine,” says Jim Griffith, chair of the medical lab science department at UMass- Dartmouth. “Seventy percent of all medical decisions are based on lab results.” UMass- Dartmouth’s medical laboratory science program is rated as one of the top five programs in the country.

Lab students at UMass-Dartmouth run plenty of tests using state-of-the-art equipment. They also do a clinical rotation in a hospital as part of their degree requirement. MGH is one of the hospitals that partners with UMass-Dartmouth for the rotations. “We work very closely with the students. They’re not just watching the lab technicians, they’re doing the work,” says Listro.

UMass-Dartmouth currently has about 150 students in its program. “When they graduate from here they can write their own tickets,” says Griffith. “We have hospitals bidding to get our graduates because we’re one of the best programs.

While many colleges with medical laboratory science departments saw a drop in enrollment in recent years, the enrollment at UVM’s program has doubled since 2002. “We made some deliberate changes to promote the department,” says Burt Wilcke, department chair. “We marketed the program to students in the other science disciplines, such as biology.” The program has been attractive to some medical students who hadn’t previously thought of medical lab science as a career option. “Students can go right on to medical school with this degree, but they can also graduate and move into a paying profession,” he explains.

Enrollment in Northeastern’s program is up too. “The class of 2008 will be the biggest class in 15 years,” says Dr. Mary Turgeon, chair of the medical laboratory science department at Northeastern. The program includes a co-op rotation in a hospital or in the area’s biotech industries, as well as clinical rotations. “The co-op gives students exposure to opportunities that exist outside hospitals as well,” says Turgeon.

Northeastern is working toward offering a doctoral degree in medical lab science that would be the first in the country. “We have such strong clinical affiliates, and we’re a strong university with tremendous resources. We can offer a leading-edge program,” she predicts.

Laura Listro’s career at MGH has been a good one, about 20 years long. Currently, she is working on a project to offer a postbachelor’s certificate program through the MGH Institute of Health Professions, which offers certification for other medical professions such as medical imaging, nursing, and physical therapy. “Providing programs to train and certify medical laboratory technologists makes sense for us,” says Listro, “and will hopefully help ease the shortage in the field.”