Increase in faculty, upgrade to laboratories and equipment leads to more clinical experiences and jobs

Before Ambrose Orr graduated from the Medical Laboratory Science program in 2016, he had conducted research with scientists at Yale and UVM, completed lab internships at a hospital and community health center, co-authored a forthcoming journal article with a doctor and secured a job for after graduation.

The undergraduate experience of Orr, now a medical laboratory scientist at the UVM Medical Center, is becoming increasingly common as students take advantage of a growing number of research opportunities and state-of-the-art technology thanks to a recently renovated and expanded research suite, the addition of new faculty, three NIH grants, more internships and a $75,000 gift from an alum to update lab equipment.

“I knew I wanted to work in the field and then go to medical school,” says Orr, whose undergraduate research focused on improving treatments for hookworm infections. “The classes, lab opportunities and faculty in the MLS program prepared me well for my current job and eventually medical school.”

Success of the MLS program has resulted in 100 percent job placement among MLS students who sought employment in the field since 2013, buoyed by the program’s 92 percent first-time pass rate of the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) exam – 10 points higher than the national average. Approximately 25 percent of UVM-MLS graduates go to graduate school, including medical school, physician assistant programs, master’s in public health and Ph.D. programs in the biomedical sciences, with about 95 percent working for at least one year before applying.

Program meeting demand of growing MLS job market

Anticipated growth in the field spurred investment in the MLS program, according to Patty Prelock, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 16 percent growth among medical laboratory scientists between 2014 and 2024 in a field that already employs 163,400 people, and is listed by U.S. News and World Report among its 100 best careers of 2015 with a median salary of $50,500.

Prelock paved the way for the hiring of new Assistant Professor Seth Frietze, who has already landed an NIH grant to study gene expression in hopes of developing precision medicines and treatments for patients. Assistant Professor Eyal Amiel runs a lab focusing on the basic molecular mechanisms regulating cellular immune activation, with the long-term goal of discovering new therapeutic approaches to manipulate immune responses and better meet the needs of immune-related clinical challenges.  

The interests of Frietze and Amiel compliment that of Associate Professor Paula Deming, whose research is aimed at understanding the mechanisms of signal transduction that regulate growth control pathways and migration. The MLS program’s focus on molecular mechanisms of human disease has provided opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to engage in scientific research, with approximately 50 percent of MLS undergraduates participating in a research experience in the last three years.

“Research has been the single greatest opportunity I have had at UVM,” says senior Kayla O’Toole, whose departmental honors thesis focuses on the physical interaction between the molecules La related protein 4 (LARP4) and Protein Kinase A (PKA). “It has made me a better student, critical thinker and gave me my passion. Working with Paula in the lab has changed my life and the way I think about research.”

Strategic investments in lab equipment, addition of master's program key to success

As former program director of the MLS program and now interim chair of the Department of Medical Laboratory and Radiation Sciences, Deming, in concert with Prelock, have taken the program to new heights. The recent addition of a master’s program in MLS will prepare graduates for leadership opportunities in management, education, research, advanced clinical practice and other fields. The upgrade to equipment and technology used in the teaching and research labs was also significant in moving the program forward.

“We wanted our faculty and students to have the opportunity to use cutting edge technology for their research and be able to simulate a clinical experience in the student laboratory that was similar to the environment where they would be working when they graduated,” says Deming. “The investment in the lab equipment has made a major difference for faculty and students with regard to the quality and breadth of teaching and research they conduct.”

Students are required to complete an intensive laboratory experience at an off-campus affiliate site during their final semester, working one-on-one with a staff technologist concentrating in clinical or public health laboratory science. Students can choose from more than a dozen affiliates including Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Yale New Haven Hospital, District of Columbia Health Department in Washington D.C. and the UVM Medical Center.  

“Our students are well prepared clinically, sought after for jobs across the northeast and are outstanding candidates for graduate school in medicine, health professions or biomedical sciences,” says Prelock. “I attribute our successes to a commitment by faculty to a teacher-scholar model that focuses on their work with students in the classroom and laboratory, where their research agenda provides even greater engaged learning opportunities for students. I look forward to the program’s evolution as one of the top programs in the country.”

Jon Reidel