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November 16, 2001
Volume 39, No. 7

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Byting the Past: Preserving Old Pages with New Technology
Training the unseen healers: Clinical lab scientist program preps grads for high demand profession
Nonprofits profit from Iowa center
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Training the unseen healers: Clinical lab scientist program preps grads for high demand profession

    
  Alan Junkins, professor of pathology, instructs clinical laboratory science students Jackeline Torres (standing) and Fatima Muhyeddin in the use of a glove box, which allows the examination of samples through a microscope in an oxygen-free environment. Photo by Kirk Murray.

“If you love science, here’s an opportunity without a graduate education to carry the title scientist and to use it every day for a patient’s benefit.”

It’s an unusual-sounding opportunity, but one that Mark Bowman offers to as many as 16 people every year. He’s director of Iowa’s Clinical Laboratory Scientist Program, one of the few programs in the College of Medicine at the undergraduate level. The students earn the title of clinical laboratory scientist (CLS), and go on to play a vital role in the diagnosis of most diseases. Whenever a physician sends a sample to the lab, it’s a clinical lab scientist who actually performs the tests. The profession calls for a solid background in biological science, chemistry, and mathematics, as well as hands-on lab experience. Iowa’s program prides itself on the success of its graduates, its high level of one-on-one instruction, and its first-rate hospital setting.

“The goal of the clinical laboratory scientist is to produce a reliable laboratory result with human materials in a short amount of time,” Bowman says. Most ply their trade in a hospital setting, but some work in independent reference labs, in physicians’ private practices, in industry as designers of testing instruments, even in veterinary labs and zoos.

Right now, there’s a critical shortage in the profession.

“It is driven globally by the demographics of the age of people,” Bowman said. “We have baby boomers aging and in need of more medical care. At the same time, there are fewer workers in the pool. So there are shortages of applicants to pharmacy programs, nursing programs, and clinical laboratory scientist programs, just to name three examples.”

Under Bowman’s direction, Iowa’s CLS program is searching for creative ways to recruit qualified candidates.

“The program is working hard to increase its visibility,” Bowman says.

One way is to seek out non-traditional students. It’s a one-year program, and a student traditionally would enter during their senior year after completing three years as a biology or other science major. Now, the program is seeking out career changers, immigrants, and older students who already may have a science background.

Last year’s class was about two-thirds college-age students and one-third nontraditional. This year’s class of 10 students is closer to 50-50. One recent Iowa State University graduate joined the program with a degree in microbiology. Three international students with degrees from other countries are seeking to qualify for professional work in the United States. There’s even one current UIHC employee, a ward clerk who dropped to 20 hours a week in order to complete the training.

Most students enter the program with a science background, but nonscientists with a strong desire are welcome. Kathy Kelly, an instructor with more than 20 year’s experience in the program, often meets with interested students to advise them about the prerequisites they’re missing and guide them through the process of filling in the courses they need to qualify for admission. While the CLS program itself entails a year of full-time study, it’s not uncommon for students to make up their prerequisites at a slower pace while holding jobs.

Iowa’s program is small by design. It’s impossible to instruct someone in the nuances of reading a slide through a microscope in a lecture setting. With a full-time faculty of four and a maximum of 16 students, there’s plenty of student-teacher interaction. During their hospital rotations, students are exposed to almost every kind of lab test they will encounter in their careers.

As a result, Iowa’s CLS graduates have an exemplary placement record. They enjoy a greater than 95 percent rate of passing their required licensing exams. And every graduate for whom the program has records for the past five years is now employed in a laboratory or related job.

“Our students have multiple offers of employment,” Bowman says. “There’s more than enough work to go around.”

Besides job security, Bowman points out two other benefits to the profession. First, clinical lab scientists can take pride in their role as behind-the-scenes healers.

“If a person is comatose, and you find the abnormal test and send the result back, there’s tremendous satisfaction,” Bowman says. “It’s very rewarding to know you can make this powerful contribution to someone’s well-being while applying science.”

Secondly, Bowman believes that clinical lab scientists and their families are healthier people because of their extensive knowledge.

“There are immediate benefits to your own and your family’s health,” Bowman says. “For example, you would readily understand the lipids in the bloodstream, all the things that keep them low, and the very good reasons to keep them low. That’s a powerful hidden perk.”

For more information on the program, call (33)5-8248 or e-mail clsp@uihc.uiowa.edu. The last two classes have had fewer than 16 students, and the program strives to meet that number while keeping high standards. It’s a fine balancing act to try to meet the demand for workers without compromising the small class size.

“That’s the essence,” Bowman says. “One-on-one with faculty. We’re trying to pass along both scientific knowledge and hands-on skills.”

Article by Sam Samuels

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