MARQUETTE - Students enrolled in Northern Michigan University's Clinical Laboratory Sciences program are learning skills that are in high demand, and will only grow more-so as the health care industry adapts to the needs of aging baby boomers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of molecular biology technologists is expected to grow by 14 percent between 2010 and 2020.
At Northern, the Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory allows clinical lab science students to get some hands-on experience inside a functioning simulation lab.
Northern Michigan University Clinical Laboratory Science major Patricia Rempala, a freshman, works in the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory. (Journal photos by Jackie Stark)
"Students get a true simulation experience working in this clinical lab. This is important today in health care once our students are finished training in our labs, they're equipped with the skills to seamlessly transition to true diagnostic labs," said Clinical Lab Science Professor Catherine Bammert.
In the lab, students learn how to perform polymerase chain reactions to copy specific regions of DNA so they may be analyzed.
Bammert said the process is used in personalized medicine to identify potential abnormalities within the DNA, allowing scientists to provide better information to doctors and patients on the type of disease a person may have and the best course of treatment.
"We isolate the particular piece of DNA that would contain the mutation, if it's present, and we make many, many copies of it so we can identify it," Bammert said.
Currently, the lab is working on a research project with the Upper Michigan Brain Tumor Center to develop a test to identify the genetic signature of glioblastoma in individual patients. Glioblastoma is the most prevalent form of primary brain cancer found in humans today.
"It's a very aggressive form of brain cancer," Bammert said.
Students working in the lab learn how to perform a variety of tests, including lab developed tests as well as FDA approved commercial kits.
"It's important that our students get access to different kinds of tests, so they are familiar with different testing methods. Students will need to know how to perform a variety of tests, regardless of whether they work in industry, research or traditional clinical laboratories," Bammert said. "So our students get a lot of hands-on experiences."
To help facilitate testing conducted by the lab, a new ice machine has been installed, courtesy of Easy Ice, a national ice-machine rental company with NMU ties.
Founder and CEO Mark Hangan and Vice President of Finance and Chief Administrative Officer Christine Robinson said they decided to donate the machine to NMU as a way to give back to Robinson's alma mater.
The machine is unique and especially useful to the lab because of the specialized ice it can make.
"They need the ice to preserve samples," Hangan said. "They need a special kind of ice, flaker ice, they can put a test tube in, other than taking a test tube and jamming it into a bunch of ice cubes."
The machine produces thin flakes of ice which help keep reagents used in the lab at the proper temperature. Bammert said the reagents must be kept on ice right up until the moment they are used.
"We didn't have excess funding to purchase an ice machine, so we worked with the NMU Foundation to acquire the instrument," Bammert said. "The ice machine is a critical piece of equipment for our lab."
Bammert said the "generous gift" will allow the lab to perform molecular testing in a variety of CLS courses and will assist with CLS research initiatives with the Upper Michigan Brain Tumor Center.
As the only university in the nation to offer five programs accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences, one of only three to offer degrees in both molecular diagnostics and cytogenetics and a list of over 45 clinical affiliates that includes Mayo Clinic School of Health Science, Michigan State University's Laboratory and the University of Michigan, Bammert said Northern is at the leading edge of one of the fastest growing careers in the country.
"We're well positioned to launch the CLS programs forward," Bammert said.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.