Oregon Tech offers training in medical lab science, a field put in the spotlight during the pandemic
Dawn Taylor, the director of the Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) program at Oregon Institute of Technology in Wilsonville, has never seen her field placed under a microscope like it has in 2020.
With millions receiving COVID-19 tests, many are realizing trained professionals have to analyze their samples before they get their results back.
"We're behind the scenes, and so this has brought us into the spotlight," she said.
Taylor hopes this newfound cognizance will inspire some to consider a career in the field and, in turn, apply to the Oregon Tech program, which is the only MLS baccalaureate offering in Oregon and recently graduated 39 students.
Taylor noted that despite the apparent need for professionals to conduct medical tests, there has been a continual shortage of qualified job applicants to work in labs. And she said this shortage stretches labs thin, particularly while an unusual disease spreads.
"There's different levels of testing for COVID-19. Some of them are rapid tests. The gold standard is PCR (polymerase chain reaction). That is considered either a moderate to highly complex test, so it takes someone who is trained to do that testing," she said. "It (the shortage) has put a really big strain on the laboratories. They're moving personnel over to do COVID testing but we still have patients in the hospital who need regular care and lab testing."
Taylor attributed the shortage to a lack of interaction between the public and medical lab scientists. Most people interested in a health care field, she said, envision a career as a doctor or nurse.
"Students who come into the program have usually happened upon their career by accident. We try to get the word out, but it's really difficult because we are behind the scenes," she said.
In fact, Taylor said two-thirds of Oregon Tech MLS program enrollees already have bachelor's degrees in fields like chemistry or microbiology, in some cases because they didn't realize they had to attain MLS certification to work in a lab.
"If they started with us their freshman year, they would have to take a heavy load, but it's possible to get their bachelor's in 3.5 years," she said.
Trevor Davis, a recent Oregon Tech MLS grad who recently finished summa cum laude in his class, attained a degree in microbiology and then worked as a brewer before joining the Oregon Tech program.
"Since undergrad, I always wanted to work in a lab environment and use my skills to help people," he said.
Now, he has a job lined up at Kootenai Health in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Taylor said nearly 100% of graduates attain a job within six months of graduation.
The OIT program includes a 12-month study at the Wilsonville campus, which features labs on site, before students participate in a 16-week externship training program at medical facilities. Davis took his externship at Kootenai Health.
"I think (during) a lot of our coursework at OIT we learned the principles of how the tests work and why different methods are used, and at externships we learned how to use these methods," Davis said.
Taylor also noted that the program offers a 12-1 student-to-teacher ratio.
"Another advantage is the instructors get to know students really well. We're with them in the lab a lot of hours a week. We get to know them, how they learn. I think that helps us be really successful," she said.
Davis said he was excited but a bit nervous about entering the field during a pandemic.
"There's some degree of that (concern about COVID-19) just like working with a lot of hazardous pathogens. There are a lot of safety precautions in place that keep us pretty safe. As long as I'm safe and cognizant of those precautions I'll be fine," he said. "I'm more nervous about being fresh out of school and jumping into a field during a pandemic. But I got a good education at OIT so I'm not too nervous."
Taylor recommended the program for people who like science and would prefer to have limited patient contact. And Davis suggested it to those who want to make a difference in health care.
"If I can help a doctor figure out what's wrong with someone, I can feel pretty proud about that. It's a pretty fulfilling career to be in," he said.
The OIT program is open to 50 people per year and Taylor said they have received 70 to 80 applicants the past couple years, though they have seen as many as 120 during one application period.
Every term, the program hosts informational sessions for prospective students. The next session will take place virtually. For more information, visit oit.edu/.
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