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Most of the time, what happens in a medical laboratory is never given a second thought. The testing goes on quietly in the background. Lab scientists perform tests. Doctors get results. Patients receive answers.

But these are not normal times. And today, when much of the coronavirus conversation has centered on testing, lab scientists are playing a more crucial role than ever.  

Finding a career in the lab

Like many people, Sarah Sanders (MLS ’19) had never heard the term “medical laboratory scientist.” It wasn’t until she found a job posting during her senior year of college that she realized it was even a career option. But with a biology degree under her belt, Sarah was looking at next steps and loved the idea of working in a lab.

“I wanted a clinical application that would help real people in real time, which is why I was looking at more of a clinical lab setting,” Sarah says.

Some online research led her to Carolinas College of Health Sciences and its Medical Laboratory Science program, an intense 12-month program focused on educating students who have a bachelor’s degree but need the skills to become certified to perform laboratory testing.   

“It felt like a med school year – the intensity of the program with the rotations and the amount of exams,” Sarah says. “But the support of the faculty was just unparalled. They were completely supportive, yet they pushed us out of our comfort zones.”

Sarah passed her certification last year and quickly landed a job working in Atrium Health’s Core Laboratory on the Molecular Pathology team. She works on a variety of tests including influenza, infectious diseases, genetic testing and others. 

Another member of that team is Jennifer Connor (MLS ’10), who took a similar path to the lab. Like Sarah, Jennifer also graduated with a biology degree and was researching potential careers when she found Carolinas College.

“I really loved all the teachers at Carolinas College,” Jennifer says. “We were treated like family. It’s a very intense year, but it is a wonderful facility and I really loved my experience there.”

After passing her certification, Jennifer went right to work at Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center, then joined the Core Laboratory when it opened in 2015.

Stepping up during a pandemic

Atrium Health’s Core Laboratory is the only one of its kind. The laboratory is the central hub for high-volume and specialty testing performed for Atrium Health facilities. It’s one of the first laboratories to go live with COVID testing in the system. The lab is currently performing all COVID testing for its acute care hospitals, facilities such as free-standing emergency departments and medical office buildings, and other Atrium Health partners.  The lab team has been working around the clock to provide timely COVID results for patients and the community.

Both Sarah and Jennifer are part of the team that works on COVID-19 testing.

“We had been watching the coronavirus since late December or early January, and then around mid-February was when we knew this would be an all-hands-on-deck effort,” Sarah says.

Many of the routine tests the lab scientists would normally perform have decreased dramatically, freeing up more time for COVID-19 testing.

“It’s a very high intensity situation,” Sarah says. “But we’ve managed to create a good workflow around it.”

Around 650 samples for COVID-19 come to the lab every day.

“For COVID we’re detecting the RNA of the virus,” Jennifer explains. “It’s not that we’re detecting the actual virus itself. It’s just RNA that they know is the sequence of COVID.”

Taking all the proper safety precautions is especially important, says Jennifer, who has a six-month-old baby at home. Lab scientists wear gowns, gloves, eye protection and even a respirator and biosafety hood for protection.

Jennifer describes the situation as surreal but rewarding. “It lets me know we are important,” she says. “Usually people don’t think about what happens in the lab, but we are very important right now.” 

Sarah agrees. And with only eight months on the job, she’s already learning more than she ever imagined.

“Getting to work on the frontline of the pandemic has not been on my work bucket list, but I also think we rise to the occasion. It shows people’s mettle,” she says. “This experience also shows that having an important work culture and teammates that you can trust is so invaluable. I think that’s definitely what has sustained me through all of this, and it’s why I want to go into work every day. We are all in this together – that’s what I firmly believe.”