University of Minnesota Alumni Association


On the Frontlines of Covid-19

The U of M’s Med Lab Sciences Program is educating a highly diverse group who test to determine if we’ve contracted the novel coronavirus.

Hannah George on the night shift at the U of M’s Infectious Disease Diagnostic Lab.
Photo credit: Jayme Halbritter

Last January, Hannah George (B.S. ’19) started her first career job as a medical laboratory scientist at the U of M’s Infectious Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Fairview M Health. She was excited to use the skills she’d mastered at the University’s Medical Laboratory Sciences Program to do microbiology testing for a number of infectious diseases. Working nights, she read cultures and performed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which amplify small sections of a person’s DNA to find anything from a virus to a genetic disorder.

Little did George know that within a month of starting the job, she’d be playing a key role in Minnesota’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As part of her work testing patients for Covid-19, George logs whether Fairview patients are symptomatic and then categorizes other important information, such as whether or not they are scheduled for surgery or are pregnant. She then performs PCR tests—currently considered the most reliable Covid-19 test—to identify if a patient has the virus. “[At the start of the pandemic] we were doing Covid testing basically our entire shifts,” she says. “That put it into perspective how big and serious this is.”

The Medical Laboratory Sciences Program was established in 1922 and is one of the oldest programs of its kind in the country. “We are the hidden health care profession,” says Janice Conway-Klaassen, associate professor and director, who notes that laboratory scientists make up the third largest cohort of medical professionals after doctors and nurses. “Most people don’t know who does their laboratory testing.”

The degree is an upper division undergraduate program. For the first two years, students take courses that are similar to those for a biology degree. The last four semesters focus on courses specific to the field. In addition, the degree requires an extra semester in clinical training in a hospital or research laboratory to get hands-on experience processing specimens. Students—there are usually between 40 and 45 in each class—take a national certification exam after graduation. In addition, the classes are highly racially diverse: For each of the past three years, 42 percent of students in each cohort have identified as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC).

The real-life training makes graduates highly employable, especially in Minnesota, where there is a shortage of laboratory scientists. “The program coordinates your clinical rotations at a hospital doing the work while you are still a student,” says Kylie Labog (B.S. ’18), who moved to the Twin Cities to attend the program after graduating from the University of San Diego. “That appealed to me because internships and clinical rotations were very competitive and hard to get into.”

Today, Labog works as a medical technologist in an infectious disease lab at the Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute, which is part of the Hennepin Healthcare System. Before Covid-19, she implemented a respiratory panel that tests for 15 types of viruses—from flu strains to the rhinovirus. Now, she’s also researching the effectiveness of different Covid-19 tests and assays.

Conway-Klaasen says this program is especially popular with first-generation college students. This year, the program received a $3.25 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to provide scholarships for disadvantaged students. Students also use their degrees and jobs as stepping stones to—and a way to finance—medical school, veterinary school, nursing school, or dental school.

“We’re not seeing the patient face to face, but we may be treating or informing the treatment of 700 or 800 patients a day,” says Conway-Klaassen. “How important and critical is that to the health and well-being of the population? Laboratory scientists are critical to the proper treatment, diagnosis, and management of patients on an everyday basis. If laboratory testing is not accurate and timely, then physicians are making decisions that are ill-informed.”

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