4 Ways A Strong Lab Professionals Community Can Impact Your Career

As a professional who started her career in a cryogenics lab as a technician, I love to celebrate Lab Week and what it means for the broader scientific community. This year we have even more reason to celebrate as we progress our fight against the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. We saw so many lab professionals around the world lock arms and work together to improve health outcomes and set us on a course back to normalcy. With a fresh and renewed interest in the field, I thought it would be a good time to address a few key topics as newcomers start looking for opportunities in STEM & Life Sciences.

One of the key contributors to building a great career is surrounding yourself with great mentors and a good network or community of professionals you can go to for help. While talking to BioBuzz and understanding their community efforts, I thought it might be a good time to share what aspects of a good community make up its foundation. 

Here’s four ways a strong lab professionals community can impact your career:

Education On Opportunities

There are many laboratory fields and positions, which is a testament to the impact lab professionals make to the health of our communities. However young people coming out of high school with an interest in STEM topics may not be aware of how vast the fields can be. This makes sense; with the growing prevalence of computer science education and demands of a broader curriculum, schools are unable to dedicate the amount of time needed to dive deeper into laboratory topics without sacrificing time spent on non-STEM subjects.

However, laboratory organizations and advocates can spend the time to introduce these topics to interested students. Recruitment for a field should not be restricted to college graduates only; laboratory professionals can start fostering interest amongst future scientists at an earlier age via accessible training modules. 

One development I have been keenly interested in is the massive infrastructure that has been built at Montgomery College. The BIOTrain program, in particular, stands out. This is a program dedicated to building essential and industry-specific skills that are directly transferable to companies all over the Capitol Region fighting disease. With both certifications and degrees available, it’s a great way to get access to laboratories and equipment that are some of the most technology-forward available in an educational setting. I just can’t impress on people enough how important that kind of hands-on experience is in this field.

Continuing Education

Some laboratory workers start in entry-level positions, working their way up, whereas others spend a few years in graduate school before transitioning to their laboratory career. Regardless, it can be easy to become siloed in the area you work in. And while dedicating the majority of one’s focus to a particular area is how experts are created, there is always room to learn more. Expansion of knowledge is never a bad thing and, when it complements one’s current role, can result in a more well-rounded scientist.

That’s why, again, I go back to what’s available in the Maryland-area. Bio-Trac, another Montgomery College program, has been building out the infrastructure for continued education and seminars for years. Granted that this past year has made things tougher, I still can’t wait to see what opportunities they continue to provide this year. They tackle some of the most urgent and pressing topics in a consumable, convenient way for learners of all stripes in the field.

Learning About What’s Beyond the Lab

Laboratory workers are driven intellectuals. Their years of experience, which can start with an undergraduate science course and last all the way through obtaining board certification to be a director, is a testament to their dedication to health and science. However many folks, while hoping to continue contributing to the advancement of health, have a desire to get off the bench and into a new role. And that’s ok! In fact, there are many lab-adjacent roles they can transition to, allowing them to utilize their knowledge on scientific principles and practices.

There are many roles where a strong science background is critical to accomplishing the goals of an organization. While it depends on the specific organization, job responsibilities can include providing technical assistance, designing health initiatives, or analyzing health data. Jobs such as these may be titled Program Officer, Analyst or Coordinator and exist in the fields such as policy, non-profits, consulting and government, just to name a few. If someone is interested in making a switch from benchwork to such a role, it would be beneficial to gain as much experience working on non-laboratory work while still in the lab.

Can you review documents with a quality assurance eye, investigating and rectifying any issues identified? Can you learn more about the laboratory’s information management system, gaining a better understanding of how the data is analyzed? Familiarity with those skillsets can really prepare a scientist to step out of a lab. Having a community of professionals that have made such a transition and can share their journey really helps to model the possibilities available.

Support For Growth in DE&I

The appreciation and adoption of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) ideals is absolutely critical in medical laboratories, whose obligation is to everyone and not a select group of individuals. The COVID-19 highlighted the longstanding fact that there is an inequitable distribution of morbidity and mortality in vulnerable populations; this inequity is not a result of a handful of factors, but rather multiple systems failing to employ a health equity lens. DE&I work cannot be successful when done passively as there may be institutional barriers; instead, work must be done intentionally in order to be effective.

There are several steps an organization can take to address DE&I both internally and externally. Recruitment practices, training and engagement activities, mentoring and allyship are just a few examples. But there should be a focus on DE&I to ensure the workforce, at all levels, represents the community it serves. There are numerous studies highlighting the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce and, in terms of health outcomes, it creates trust in an organization. Trust from the staff that the organization is doing what is right and trust from the population it serves.

Although, more importantly, I think we should focus on how we can foster these environments beyond our company walls. Good affinity groups are driven by influencers that establish clear objectives aligned to the values and mission of the broader community in which they exist. I’d like to see more groups grow their voice by understanding the power they can have to affect change by coming together. The impact on individual careers can be profound when resources, networks, and mentorship can be made easily accessible to everyone in the space.

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Nikki Marchan, MPH

Nikki Marchan is public health professional who is passionate about progressing the study of infectious diseases for enhanced prevention, detection, and response. As a Senior Specialist with the Association of Public Health Laboratories, she provides support for laboratory and surveillance activities and works on behalf of and in collaboration with public health laboratories, federal partners, and other public health organizations. Her collaborative work with other public health professionals aids in tracking and preventing disease outbreaks worldwide. In her free time, she loves hiking, reading, and spending time with her husband and rescue dog.

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