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Laboratory Manager Advocates for Careers in the Laboratory Professions

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

When she isn’t developing strategic goals or thinking about ways to automate testing and improve efficiency in the laboratory, M. Sue Zaleski, MA, SCT(ASCP)HT, is working tirelessly as an advocate for careers in the laboratory professions.

“We can be invisible to both the patients and the rest of the healthcare team. We need to get outside of the lab and change that.”
—M. Sue Zaleski, MA, SCT(ASCP)HT
Whether speaking at conferences or making presentations to high school or college students and their parents, Ms. Zaleski, who is Clinical Pathology Laboratory Manager at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, Iowa, believes it is part of her professional responsibility to promote and educate people about the critical work performed by laboratory personnel.

“Most people don’t understand at all what happens to their blood when it’s drawn,” said Ms. Zaleski, who also serves as ASCP’s 2011–12 Chair of the Council of Laboratory Professionals. “They don’t know that there’s a whole battery of lab professionals behind those tests. We can be invisible to both the patients and the rest of the healthcare team. We need to get outside of the lab and change that.”

Ms. Zaleski has worked to raise the lab professions’ profile by attending events such as last fall’s iSTEM (i stands for Iowa) Festival for elementary school students in Coralville, Iowa, which attracted 800 families who participated in hands-on activities and learned more about career opportunities. The purpose of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Education Coalition is to advocate for policies to improve STEM education at every level—and it jibes well with Ms. Zaleski’s own mission.

“Being a laboratory professional has been very rewarding for me, and coming from a nontraditional educational background, I can show people that they can take many different pathways to get trained and certified,” she said.

Growing up in Springfield, Ill., Ms. Zaleski received an excellent science and math education, she said. She went on to college at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign but left her studies to jump into work as a histotechnician at the Carle Clinic in Urbana. It’s there that she discovered cytotechnology and became intrigued enough to take a leave of absence to train in that field at Washington University in St. Louis before returning to the laboratory at the Urbana clinic. Her next step was moving with her husband to the University of Iowa, where she worked as a cytechnologist while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Health Occupations Education and, later, a master’s degree in Policy, Planning, and Leadership.

Noting that there are many options—including online and distance learning—for gaining the necessary training for a career in the laboratory, Ms. Zaleski said she wants to communicate that fact to students.

“Not everyone can afford the traditional route [of full-time college],” she said. “And now I’m seeing a lot of older individuals who have lost their jobs because of the bad economy and are looking at medical laboratory sciences as a really good profession for them—one that’s recession-proof and offers mobility.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges, she conceded. As a lab manager, she fights a constant battle to find ways to increase productivity and meet expectations amid cuts in resources and staffing. But Ms. Zaleski is able to unwind from the pressures by biking and golfing in the summer months and playing clarinet in her community band during the winter.

Her love of the profession and the gratification she experiences in being able to introduce others to the satisfactions of working in the laboratory also keep her going.

“But we can’t expect a few people to do it,” said Ms. Zaleski, who gives young technologists in her laboratory education time to help spread the word. “If everyone could speak passionately about the contributions we make to health care on a regular basis—whether it’s with our church group or a community group—we could all be out there recruiting every day.”