Advanced degrees in Clinical Laboratory Science?

By Anne Bradley, News Reporter

Clinical Laboratory Science is a field not many are familiar with, but there is an easy analogy to understand the field. When we’re watching House, or Scrubs, or E.R., or any other medical drama, we get used to seeing physicians diagnosing patients and ordering tests. How many times have we watched House scream about how his team was performing the wrong test? The key is, they’re not running the tests – clinical lab scientists are. Kevin Foley, Assistant Professor of Clinical Laboratory Science (or CLS), is working on putting together a post-graduate program in laboratory medicine which is, in his own words, “very underappreciated.” Clinical laboratory scientists are also referred to as Medical Technologists.

“Our Clinical Lab Science undergraduate program is a tried and true program, it’s been around for over 25 years,” said Foley. “We [NMU] already have an associates and a bachelor’s program, and now we’re trying to see if there is a need and an interest for a master’s degree program here.” 

Foley was a recipient of one Wildcat Innovation Fund award, to begin research on the feasibility of a CLS Master's program or post-baccalaureate certification program at NMU. “It’s basically a proposal for a proposal,” he explained. “This award will be funding some market research, surveys of graduates and professionals in the field, and exploration of the need for a more upper-level program.”

Clinical Laboratory Scientists’ work is highly specialized. Foley said there are four main areas in which these tests are being performed. “The CLS people are running tests in microbiology, hematology (looking at blood cells), chemistry (hormones, vitamins, drug levels, cancer markers, the myriad of analytes found in any body fluid) and transfusion medicine, where we match donors and recipients. There are all sorts of little areas too, but these are the four main areas,” said Foley. Other areas of laboratory medicine include diagnostic genetics, toxicology and cytotechnology. “It’s a huge field, it’s estimated there are over 20,000 lab tests which can be ordered, but most of them are high complexity. It takes someone with scientific method experience and clinical certification.

In the workplace, a CLS degree is becoming more and more marketable. It is estimated by the Bureau  of Labor Statistics that there will be over 40,000 jobs in the field, but last year, only 12,000 students were graduating out of CLS programs. In medical school, the vast majority of students are coming in with a biology or chemistry degree. Foley explains, “If you have a basic science degree and want a job in the pathology field, you may want to get a masters [in CLS] which leads to certification, allowing you to practice in a clinical lab setting.”  “To work in a hospital you need the certification. The only way to get certified is to go through an accredited program like ours.” CLS graduates also find employment in crime labs and can move quickly into a management position after interning at hospitals with more laboratory certifications and experience. “It’s good for students to progress, especially after graduating with a bachelor’s degree,” said Foley.

The program at Northern hopes to increase the amount of certified Clinical Laboratory Scientists in the field, as well as add to the research being performed at NMU. “I think NMU is interested in getting more research going,  graduate students are the key ingredient for this,” said Foley. “Faculty often don’t have time to do experiments unassisted.” The main point to remember is Clinical Laboratory Science is enormously under-recognized but is a vital component of the health care system. Foley concluded by reminding future students that this program can stand on its own, or can be used as a “good stepping stone” to medical or graduate school. In these uncertain times, a Clinical Laboratory Science degree and certification could be a useful addition to your resume.