A Day in the Life of a Lab Professional
Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, the last full week in April, is an annual celebration of medical laboratory professionals and pathologists who play an important role in patient advocacy and health care.
Currently in the United States, there are over 55,897 medical laboratory scientists employed, with 66.3% being women (Medical Laboratory Scientist Demographics and Statistics in the US, 2023). The first history of clinical laboratory sciences (CLS) started in the mid-1920s, although the cultural subtleties that influenced the profession’s development may be traced back to the American Revolution. When women began attending college after the Civil War, it was assumed that earning a degree was purely for self-fulfillment and to improve their status as mothers and wives.
Career options were restricted since male-dominated fields provided little possibility for advancement. Several epidemic outbreaks in the late nineteenth century, however (typhoid, TB, diphtheria, and so on) produced a fresh demand for laboratory testing in patient care. Having a laboratory at a hospital was considered a luxury in the early 1900s. Increased demands on pathologists to satisfy shifting public health expectations and “big science” began to carve out a role for female scientists. CLS was one of the first jobs where women could find work that was not a low-level secretarial function (even if the unique talents required were “feminine,” such as bacteriology and cleaning glass ware).
(An unidentified student in a science laboratory, mid-1940s. Photo Credit: Francis E. Falkenbury, Jr., Sarah Lawrence College Archives)
Career options grew significantly in the 1980s as advanced technology, administrative tasks, and non-traditional laboratory settings became more widespread. The number of persons over the age of 65 began to rise substantially, consumer education and interest in personal health grew popular, and the growth of government Medicare/Medicaid programs all contributed to the tremendous surge in demand for laboratory services.
How It Began
Like anyone other individual, I wanted to learn more about this profession and why someone would want to choose it. In March I was introduced to Ashley Vega, a Molecular Technologist at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, NJ. I was able to spend some time with Ashley and ask her about working in a career she loves.
Like any good story, I started at the beginning. “Growing up I was always good at math and science,” she said. “I always knew I was going to go into pre-med.” Right after high school, Ashley attended Montclair State University, a public research university in Montclair, NJ. During her time at Montclair University, she was able to participate in a mock program at The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, NJ. The program opened her eyes at many possible career paths she could take. Did she want to become a doctor? Or do research on the other side? Ashley enjoyed the pre-med classes she was taking, but when it was time to work on a cadaver in class, she just didn’t feel passionate about it. When she returned to complete her junior year, she decided to pivot and focus more on laboratory research. “I was fortunate to work on some research projects during my senior year,” said Ashley.
The Next Steps
After graduation, Ashley landed a job with LabCorp. It was her first position as a Molecular Technologist working in women’s health. There, she was able to use all different types of PCR techniques. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a laboratory method for rapidly making (amplifying) millions to billions of copies of a given DNA region, which may subsequently be analyzed in more depth. PCR requires selecting a portion of the genome to be amplified using short synthetic DNA fragments called primers, followed by several rounds of DNA synthesis to amplify that segment.
(Photo Credit: The National Human Genome Research Institute)
After a few years with LabCorp, Ashley became a Senior Technician but wanted to grow more in her career. She was soon hired as a tech with BioReference. “I learned so much with my time there. It was a completely different experience from LabCorp,” said commented. “We started doing NextGen sequencing, lots of pipetting, and also went from manual to automation.” Following a car accident in 2017, Ashley took some personal time off before returning to LapCorp as a team lead.
We all remember when the COVID-19 pandemic hit our world in 2020. While most of us were ordered to stay home for two-weeks, first responders, hospital workers, and other crucial professions were at the forefront. “We were in the middle of moving the lab to a new building when the pandemic hit,” said Ashley. One weekend in March 2020, Ashley and her team received a call that they would begin COVID-19 testing that Monday. LabCorp had the machine, equipment, and the tests ready to go. By mid-March, the U.S. had tested 125 per million of its population. The ciaos just continued. Between March through May of 2020, they were about 17,000 samples behind. Ashley recalled the nightmare, “One day we were there for over 16 hours. [What] a messed-up time when COVID happened.” By June 2020, she landed her dream position at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, NJ. Ashley said that she, “finally feels like she found her home,” and that she couldn’t be any happier.
(COVID-19 testing. Photo Credit: UK Parliament)
Since Ashley has been in clinical research in a hospital setting, she noticed that everyone put their patients first. She was originally hired to help with COVID-19 testing but has now transitioned more within oncology, working on next-generation sequencing (NGS). In 2026, Cooperman Barnabas will be opening a new cancer center where state-of-the-art research and testing will be available. Ashley and her team are in the process of launching the NGS for 2026, doing a full panel of testing instead of looking for hot spots. She is also working on HER2 testing. This new type of testing will find genetic mutations, and therapeutics to help you all within 24-hours. This is set to launch in the next year or so.
A Typical Day in the Lab
“Each day starts with a daily huddle to know what’s going on for that day,” Ashley commented. “[We] see what going on [with the testing]. What is stat? What is pending? Whose results can wait?” Every day is different. For example, they might do certain testing on different days. Like Tuesday and Thursday work on a specific virus. The week is also planned out by the involvement of the testing. Take genetic testing – the first part of the test is to extract the DNA, label, number, process, then prepare the test. This could take a couple hours or a day depending on the type of tumor. During the height of the pandemic, COVID-19 testing was always first and foremost. At the time, they were considered critical results and the doctors had to be called directly.
Other days in the lab they have continuing education, where they will learn about new research and technology. Since getting certified in molecular testing, Ashley has learned a great deal. The additional education has helped her in her roles at hospitals and research labs.
Advice for Future Medical Laboratory Professionals
Wrapping up our conversation, I wanted to ask Ashley what kind of advice she would give to a young adult in school who might want to pursue a career in her industry. “Focus on your math and sciences. Join a math, science, or tech club at school. Sign up for AP classes – branch out as much as you can in high school, including science programs after school,” she said. “Local libraries could have science programs. Look into your local community, there could be science or career fairs.” Ashley also recommends that when enrolling in college to start with the core classes first. “Take your time, see if you like it.”
Lastly, if you’re interested in learning, don’t start your career in a commercial lab. Get involved with research and pharmaceuticals. Getting a degree in the sciences will not only give you future job security, but a chance to learn every day for a lifetime.
(Ashley Vega in her lab)