Jean-Paul Nadeau, MSc, CMLT, is a clinical adjunct professor at the Michener Institute of Education at University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto, Canada. But though he loves teaching, he didn’t plan on it. Rather, the COVID-19 pandemic urgently presented the opportunity for the certified medical laboratory technologist (MLT): “Everything was going down really quickly. It was very high pressure,” says Nadeau, speaking of his move into teaching in 2020. Whether it was the rush of adrenaline or not, he found himself enjoying being in front of the lab and teaching, he says. Today, Nadeau has updated his initial lessons into online courses and practicum workshops held three times a year for the annual class of future MLT graduates.
Here, Nadeau shares his career journey for other laboratorians interested in holding a teaching position and highlights key lessons learned throughout his path as an MLT.
A passion for making a difference
“I was always interested in health care; I wanted a job that I loved and that had more of an impact on patients,” says Nadeau. His journey into health care began with an undergraduate in the biomedical sciences at the University of Ottawa in Canada, where he also pursued a masters in microbiology and immunology. “I was always interested in molecular genetics and got to experience the research side of things for two and a half years.” After his masters at the University of Ottawa, he also worked for the Government of Canada as a molecular biology research assistant.
“Looking at the karyotype, understanding each band, and learning about diseases related to each particular piece of the chromosome was very cool and intense.”
During his stint in basic research, he found it difficult to remain motivated. Basic research did not have as strong or immediate of an impact to people he hoped for in a profession. So, while working for the Canadian federal government, he decided to enrol in the Clinical Genetics Technology program at the Michener Institute in Toronto, Canada (only one of two accredited institutions in Canada that offer certification for MLTs in clinical genetics technology). Nadeau spent 16 months (a year of classroom and lab studies, and a four-month placement at a hospital) studying and practicing both molecular genetics and cytogenetics.
While the molecular techniques didn’t change from what he was used to in research, what strengthened his decision to move to a clinical setting was the clear focus on patients and his newfound interest in cytogenetics. “The study of chromosomes was new to me,” he says. “Looking at the karyotype, understanding each band, and learning about diseases related to each particular piece of the chromosome was very cool and intense,” and involved a lot of memorization.
A dire need for new MLTs
Pre-pandemic, Nadeau’s knack for helping others had led him to becoming a laboratory instructor. Then, he transitioned to teaching during the peak of the pandemic when the shortage of MLTs was most profound. “Typically, a microbiology lab may have around 50 to 100 or more MLTs, whereas an oncology lab may have about half of that,” says Nadeau about the comparatively large staff found in hospital labs, such as at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. Yet, with millions and millions of swabs coming into the lab, there was not enough staff to be able to test them all, he says. While the number of incoming samples for oncology labs dropped, an incredible influx of samples overwhelmed microbiology labs, reflecting the shift in testing priorities as COVID-19 cases soared in early 2020. His colleagues soon experienced a testing bottleneck and rapidly became overburdened.
“Being able to see that results produced in the lab directly translate to diagnoses and treatments for people is immensely rewarding.”
“Public Health Ontario began a recruitment campaign for hundreds of people, and they all needed to be trained quickly,” says Nadeau. With the urgent need for personnel, Nadeau became one of the few clinical genetics MLTs selected to onboard new hires at Public Health Ontario, providing micropipetting training. “We were training about 25 people every weeknight,” he says of his first lessons, which he imparted after his full-time job as a cancer molecular genetics technologist at UHN’s Toronto General Hospital. “After they were trained, the new graduates would go to work in the field by helping with pipetting and other upfront activities essential to get the testing going.”
Challenges of teaching and working in the lab
Currently, Nadeau practices clinical molecular genetics at the Toronto General Hospital Genome Diagnostics lab while also teaching as a clinical adjunct professor at the Michener Institute at UHN. “Things are more relaxed now,” he says, but at the beginning, “if I had a busy day at work, and then I had to go teach, it could be overwhelming to have everything straight in my head before teaching.” According to Nadeau, task switching was sometimes difficult without enough preparation time, but the urgency of the pandemic meant that time to prepare his notes or gather his thoughts before starting to teach in front of a crowd was unrealistic.
Advice for MLTs interested in teaching
1. Embrace failure
“Of all the skills from grad school, troubleshooting was the one that has helped me the most as a lab technologist and a professor,” says Nadeau. “Many students may exit undergrad and then go straight into an MLT program,” but the benefits to graduate studies include learning from failures and how to troubleshoot, as well as providing a deeper understanding of a field, such as molecular genetics.
2. Be brave and speak up
During graduate school, Nadeau also participated in extracurricular activities such as graduate student associations and took part in routine discussions like lab meetings and work-in-progress seminars. Nadeau credits his master’s experience with feeling more confident about speaking up in the lab and in front of students: “Some technologists can be quiet or lack the confidence to speak in front of scientists or management,” he says, but “sometimes, scientists or management are looking for feedback, and not being able to speak up can stall progress in the lab.”
3. Find your passion
“Not being able to speak up can stall progress in the lab.”
For Nadeau, being able to see that results produced in the lab directly translate to diagnoses and treatments for people is immensely rewarding. “Knowing that what I did at work was important is a great feeling of validation,” he says. But at the end of the day, what really matters is whether you truly enjoy it—pay attention to your placements, and as much as possible, ensure that the labs that you work in have supportive environments, he says.