by Mark Lee
Many of us pursue a doctorate with the goal of pursuing a postdoc, then maybe a second postdoc, and then land a faculty position at an academic institution. At least, that’s the traditional route. But somewhere along the path, both personal and professional factors lead us to avenues we never considered. If you look around 5 years after graduation, many of us are not on this traditional path of tenure-track faculty position. I have seen colleagues from graduate school go into medicine, law, and scientific writing. I have seen others take positions as lead scientists in industry and government. I have even seen a few completely switch gears and go into elementary school education. But I have seen very few go into laboratory medicine, the profession that I chose to pursue.
Laboratory medicine is a branch of medicine that is part of the larger pathology department. Usually pathology is divided into anatomic pathology, where tissue is grossed and examined, and clinical pathology, where you run your chemistry, microbiology, hematology, immunology, and other related testing services. Laboratory medicine is essentially clinical pathology. While being a pathologist requires M.D. training, there are sections in laboratory medicine that are practiced by both M.D.s and qualified Ph.Ds. In many hospitals in the U.S., and some in Canada, chemistry, microbiology, immunology, molecular pathology, and biochemistry sections are overseen by a board certified Ph.D.-level clinical scientist. The route to get the necessary credentials varies by section, but it generally requires a Ph.D. in the subject matter (like microbiology and immunology for the microbiology and/or immunology sections), clinical training (usually a 2-3 year fellowship or approved clinical work experience), and passing the respective board exam. In some U.S. states, licensure is also required.
In my case, towards the end of my Ph.D. studies in microbiology and immunology, I decided that I wanted to be closer to patient care. While I always wanted to pursue a research career, I realized that the reward of seeing my research impact patients would take years, if not decades. Also, the level of competition and risk to undertake an academic research career left me dumbfounded.
While these thoughts were circulating in my head, I went to the 2014 Society for Glycobiology annual meeting. There, I met a clinical microbiologist who was directing a hospital microbiology laboratory. He was very inspirational and ignited my motivation to pursue this path. So I applied to various clinical microbiology fellowship programs in the US known as CPEP programs (Committee on Postgraduate Educational Program) through the ASM (American Society for Microbiology). These are very competitive programs with only about 10-15 spots available across the US annually. I was lucky enough to get into the UCLA program, and after several years and passing the board examination, I am now directing a clinical microbiology laboratory.
The practice of a clinical microbiologist is composed of 3 main areas: service, teaching, and research. The service portion is essentially overseeing the operation of the laboratory and making sure patient testing is performed accurately, in a timely manner. This includes keeping on top of quality assurance, regulatory compliance, and other administrative functions. It also includes providing consultation to clinicians on pathogen identification, antimicrobial susceptibility guidance, and other questions related to infectious disease diagnostics. The teaching portion is to ensure that the technologists and technicians in the laboratory become and remain knowledgeable and trained. Also, for clinical microbiologists in academic centers, an additional duty is to provide education to medical students, residents, and fellows. Lastly, research is generally not required, but most clinical microbiologists do undertake some level of research. This could include traditional academic research, translational and clinical research, or developing new lab tests. Various opportunities are available.
If this career path piques your interest, feel free to check out these websites that provide detailed information on the US program https://www.asm.org/index.php/about-cpep and the Canadian program http://www.ccm.ca/certifications/fccm/.
Also, feel free to reach out to your local hospital microbiology director. As a profession, we are always happy to help potential clinical microbiologists through this process. If you are interested in another area of laboratory medicine, feel free to reach out to your local clinical/hospital laboratory professional in that area.
About the Author
Currently working as the Divisional Microbiology Director for LabCorp, Mark obtained his first bachelor in political science, but found his true passion in science and pursued a second bachelor in biochemistry. He then went onto pursuing a master in biology with an emphasis in genomics, then earned his doctorate in Aspergillus cell wall and extracellular matrix research. During his doctoral studies, he was inspired by his PhD supervisor who is a medical microbiologist. After his PhD, Mark pursued a clinical microbiology fellowship, and is now certified by both the American Society of Clinical Pathology and the American Board of Medical Microbiology. He is passionate about all things Microbiology with special emphasis in molecular diagnostics and susceptibility testing.