Interviewer: Do you love science and medicine but you don't necessarily want to become a doctor or a nurse? Well, maybe a degree as a medical technologist and working in a laboratory might be for you. We'll get the inside from somebody who's chosen that as their career path next on The Scope.
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Interviewer: Kristen Case is a medical technologist, also known as an MT, who specializes in parasitology and fecal testing at ARUP Laboratories which is one of the top labs in the country that specializes in identifying parasites so doctors know how to treat them. Today I want to find out more about what you do and how you got your training to do what you do. So first of all, what kind of experience do you have to have to do what you do?
Kristen: It's a specific major. It's called clinical laboratory science or medical technology. There's a program at Weber State, at BYU, and here at the University of Utah. You take specific courses about microbiology, virology, blood bank, chemistry, so it's a really fun major because you learn about all different types of things. If you like science, it's a perfect major.
Interviewer: Is this an undergraduate major?
Kristen: Yes, undergraduate major.
Interviewer: And it's called what, again?
Kristen: Medical technology.
Interviewer: Okay, medical technology.
Kristen: Or clinical laboratory science.
Interviewer: Okay, so then when you got your job at ARUP Laboratories, then that's when you started specializing in what you specialize in?
Interviewer: You could have done a lot of different things with this degree, so why did you choose to specialize in parasitology and fecal testing? I mean, that sounds gross to me.
Kristen: For me it's gross but it's also fascinating. It's really fun. We get to see a lot of different organisms, do a lot of different things throughout the day. I learn something new every day, and that's what's so fun about my job.
Interviewer: So help me understand how you end up with the specimens you end up with? So a doctor has a patient that comes in and the doctor is led to believe on some level there could be a parasite or what else going on. What would they do at that point?
Kristen: Usually a person will go to the doctor because they're having some type of intestinal problem. So the doctor is going to start doing a panel of testing, and testing for parasites probably is just one of those tests that they're going to order. Because we're in the United States, parasites aren't super common but it's still on the panel of tests so we get a lot of specimens in our lab. We look at them in the microscope, looking specifically for parasites. We can identify them microscopically or even using some other methodologies.
Interviewer: So usually you are looking at fecal tests? Is that what you primarily would look to find these parasites?
Kristen: Yes. The majority of our specimens are fecal specimens, but parasites are really sneaky critters and so they actually . . . we get eye specimens, pleural fluid, urine, all different types, skin scrapings, all different types of specimens in lab. And again, that's something that's fun to me is a lot of different sources.
Interviewer: Okay, so parasites can live in a lot of different places in the body. I think we tend to think of in the stomach probably most of the time, or a tick on your skin. That's a parasite. So you get the lab sample. What do you call it when the doctor sends it to you?
Kristen: A test order, or we get the order.
Interviewer: Yeah, you get the test order, you put it under your microscope, and you start looking. That's how you find it. You don't conduct some other chemical test or anything like that?
Kristen: There are some chemical tests. One of them is called an ELISA, enzyme-linked immunoassay, and that's a test that uses the specific interaction of an antigen and an antibody. Antigen is a protein that's going to be on the organism's surface somewhere, so the surface of the cell, and then antibodies are produced by animals, humans, specifically matched to that antigen. So we use those antibodies in a controlled environment, and if the specimen has a parasite like Giardia, cryptosporidium, or even Entamoeba histolytica, the test would be positive.
Interviewer: So for those ones that you just mentioned, you use a chemical test. What are some that you just have to use a microscope for?
Kristen: So the less common ones we have to use a microscope because there haven't been tests developed yet for those less common parasites. For example, dientamoeba fragilis, it's a trophozoite that lives in your intestine. Some of the tapeworms they don't have any chemical tests. We have to look at those under the microscope or even macroscopically look at the tapeworm segments to figure out what the patient has.
Interviewer: And when you're looking through that microscope you know what you're looking for. When you see it you're like, "Ding! Ding! Ding! That's it."
Kristen: Yes, because we receive a lot of training on the job and in school, but more so on the job because we're so specialized in the lab. There's a lot of training that we get. So anything that's potentially there, we can identify it.
Interviewer: Yeah. So with this undergraduate degree that you got, medical technologist, it sounds like you get to do some pretty exciting things?
Kristen: Yeah. I really love my career. I think it was one of the best decisions I made to study medical technology. And then I was lucky enough to get hired on ARUP. To me it's the best place to work. They value their employees, there's great benefits, there's tuition reimbursement, and then as a reference lab we receive specimens from all over the United States and so we get to do really specialized work. It's really fun.
Interviewer: And it also sounds like, for your investment in education, you had the four years as opposed to needing to take 10, 12 years of education and you're already helping people.
Kristen: Yeah, I think it was a great return on investment and the major is, and the classes you take, are very hard. It's a very rigorous course no matter what university you go to. But it really pays off because I'm doing something that helps people. It has value in the community and then it's also fascinating.
Interviewer: If somebody was considering this as a career, what would you say to them?
Kristen: I'd say do it.
Interviewer: What kind of person would be a good fit for this?
Kristen: The best fit for someone who wants to work in the lab is someone who likes attention to detail, likes to work with their hands, likes to problem solve. A lot of us are kind of science nerds and so we enjoy being behind the scenes rather than right there with the patient like a nurse or a doctor. We have a really big hand in healthcare. Doctors depend on the results that we give them. We're behind the scenes, though.
Interviewer: Yeah, that must be really rewarding.
Kristen: It is. When I go home every day I feel like I've done something good. I've helped somebody, whether I've seen their face or not.
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