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Medical laboratory scientists: Meet health care’s detectives
Medical lab scientist conducting tests

This week, Cardinal Health announced the winners of its annual “Lab Excellence” awards, naming the country’s top medical laboratory scientists (also called clinical laboratory scientists) who are advancing health care and improving patient outcomes through their research, diagnosis, innovation and/or advocacy. These honors are announced each year during Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, created 40-plus years ago to increase awareness of lab scientists’ significant contributions to health care.

Medical lab scientists are health care’s detectives, sussing out clues in specimens of patients’ blood, tissue and body fluids. They perform a wide range of tests, all of them tightly regulated by Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA). Here are just a few of the tasks that fall to medical lab scientists:

  • Performing cholesterol tests, genetic testing, urinalysis and bacterial culture tests;
  • Analyzing and validating the data needed to identify genetic disorders, cancer, cardiovascular issues, diabetes and other diseases;
  • Cross-matching donor blood for transfusions used in surgeries;
  • Testing a patient’s blood for drug levels to measure how well various treatments are working;
  • Looking for abnormal blood cells that help diagnose anemia and leukemia;
  • Identifying microbes and predicting the best antibiotic or antimicrobial for treatment.

The scientists who work in clinical labs are also experts in using many high-precision and high-tech instruments. These include automated lines for processing thousands of patient samples daily, specialized stains and instrumentation to identify cellular abnormalities, and procedures to isolate genetic material of cells/organisms to detect at the molecular level.

“Lab professionals show up every day to provide testing to give patients and their health care providers the information to guide care plans,” said Chris Kerski, senior vice president and general manager, Cardinal Health Laboratory Products. “Their work is often hidden, but their contributions to health care excellence are essential.”

In fact, though the work medical lab scientists do is primarily behind the scenes of health care, as many as 70% of medical decisions depend on laboratory test results, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Division of Laboratory Systems.

Kerski’s team supports medical lab scientists with a broad portfolio of instrumentation, reagents and consumables to enable lab testing. They also provide a variety of services, including lab kitting services (providing customized specimen collection kits, with products, instructions and compliant labeling to ensure specimen integrity), product distribution and logistics, as well as accredited continuing education programs.

As health care continues to evolve, with advancements in personalized medicine and a growing demand for earlier and more accurate disease detection, the role of a medical lab scientist continues to have more impact on patient outcomes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects there also to be a growing demand for medical lab scientists, with an anticipated 11% increase in jobs by 2030 (from a 2020 baseline).

Typically, the requirements for becoming a medical lab scientist include a bachelor’s degree in medical or clinical lab science (MLS or CLS), medical technology, or another science- or health-related area. There also are paths to becoming a medical laboratory technician (MLT) for those with an associate degree, master’s degree specializations, and the new Doctorate in CLS. Graduates complete a clinical lab program or internship and sit for exams to earn national certification. The primary certifying body for medical lab scientists is the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP).

Below, we share how the three top Cardinal Health Lab Excellence List honorees found their way to their profession, and the joy they take in their work.

Rodney Rohde, PhD, MS, SM(ASCP)CM, SVCM, MBCM, FACSc*, Global Fellow

“By the time I completed my first microbiology class as an undergraduate, I’d fallen in love with both the study of laboratory science and infectious diseases,” Rohde said. Today, he is Regents’ Professor and chair of the CLS program at Texas State University, and associate director for the Translational Health Research Center at Texas State.

“Many people think that doctors do lab tests, because that’s what a lot of television programs show,” he said. “But it’s just not true. Clinical lab scientists conduct the tests, then consult with physicians about what we find. We are the experts of laboratory medicine – from pre- to post-analytical testing.”

An undergraduate degree in CLS or MLS provides a foundational science education, he said. “Students learn microbiology, clinical chemistry, hematology and blood banking, for example. They also become proficient in clinical research and in laboratory information systems – the software solutions that process and store patient data from tests.”

Once students graduate and are credentialed, they’re employable immediately, Rohde said. “Typically, our CLS students are on a career path even before they graduate. Many go on to work in hospital labs, but others get jobs in clinics or forensic labs, research institutions or biotech companies. Some become educators, teaching others to become lab scientists.”

Rohde is a persuasive advocate for his profession and writes and speaks frequently about his work. “I was a first-generation college student, and CLS opened doors to amazing opportunities for me,” he said. “I never imagined that I would one day be in a position to help other students open doors to their dreams, as well.”

Stacey Paryag-Stevens, MPA, AHI(AMT), MLS(ASCP)CM

“When I was younger, I wanted to become a doctor,” Paryag-Stevens said, who is originally from Grenada, West Indies. “But when I started college back home, I realized that I wasn’t so passionate about direct patient care. What I really loved was the science of health care.”

So she focused on becoming a high school science teacher; after teaching for a few years, she decided to pursue a degree in lab science, and came to the U.S. to do so. She stayed on to earn a master’s degree so she could teach at the college level.

Today, she is the program director of the School of Medical Technology and the laboratory education coordinator at Comanche County Memorial Hospital (CCMH), a teaching hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma, where she created a new path to MLS certification for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree in a non-health-related area of science.

“I love my work,” she said. “For me, it combines the best of both worlds – teaching and lab science. When I introduce students to this field, I talk about how this work and all its chemistry experiments can seem like magic.”

Lab scientists have to be very clever and resourceful, she said. “Their work is foundational to health care. These are the professionals who discover what it is inside a patient that is making them sick. With that information, they help ensure that physicians can make accurate diagnoses.”

Michele Peddicord, MHA, MT(ASCP)

Peddicord has loved science for as long as she can remember. “When I was in fifth grade, I asked my parents for a microscope and a chemistry set – and received both,” she said. “From the time I was a child, I  wanted to work in a hospital. But I didn’t know for a very long time that it was possible to work in a hospital lab.”

Like Paryag-Stevens, Peddicord started her college career with the intention of becoming a health care provider. As she was beginning nursing school, a cousin introduced her to the lab where he worked as a medical technician. “That was very exciting, and I was immediately hooked on the idea of becoming a lab scientist,” she said.

That passion for clinical lab work never left. Today, Peddicord manages the Martha Morehouse and Stefanie Spielman Clinical Labs and the Mohs Dermatology Lab at The Ohio State University (OSU) Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. Most of the testing done in all of these labs is related to cancer.

Her role and her reputation for excellence in the lab earned her the opportunity to work with a core team of lab scientists to stand up a COVID-19 lab early in the pandemic. “We worked pretty much around the clock for months, trying to understand the biology of the virus and predict its spread. It was a very dark time, but also an amazing time to be a lab scientist,” she said.

Peddicord loves to talk to high school students about her work. “I tell them that if they’re interested in science and love trying to figure things out, clinical lab science is probably a great fit. There are so many opportunities for growth and for moving into different specialties. The work is constantly changing, too, thanks to the advances in science.

“I didn’t find this vocation; it found me,” she said. “I want to help young people who are likely to love it as much as I do to learn about it early.”

*Note: Clinical lab scientists can earn many different specialized certifications, as the acronyms alongside each of our honorees’ names suggest. The list below shows the acronyms used in this story and what they mean. (A “CM” after a certification acronym connotes voluntary participation in the ASCP’s Certification Maintenance Program, which provides ongoing learning opportunities for the lab scientists to stay current in their particular areas of expertise.)

  • SM(ASCP)CM: Specialist in Microbiology from ASCP
  • SVCM: Specialist in Virology
  • MBCM: Molecular Biologist
  • FACSc: Fellow of the Association of Clinical Scientists (Fellows are doctoral scientists who are considered experts in teaching or applying clinical lab methods.)
  • AHI (AMT): Allied Health Instructor certification from American Medical Technologists
  • MLS(ASCP)CM: Medical Laboratory Scientist certification from ASCP
  • MT(ASCP): Medical Technologist certification from ASCP