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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Dealing with life and death in the lab

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

Each week we read more reports about suspected or probable cases of SARS -- or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. But who decides whether a patient actually has this mysterious disease?

It all comes down to the work of medical laboratory technologists. No test has yet been developed to identify SARS, so technologists can only identify it by using their expertise to rule out other diseases.
Brenda Murphy

"For example, if a person comes in with a fever and the blood sample shows bacterial infection, you can rule out SARS, which is viral in nature," explains Kurt Davis, executive director of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS).

Some think of lab technologists as medical detectives, trained to use sophisticated tests to identify health problems by studying the chemical, biological or genetic makeup of human tissue and body fluids.

For people in this career, the learning doesn't end when you graduate either. Viruses and bacteria are constantly mutating, so technologists continually have to learn new techniques and ways to identify them.

"Medical laboratory science is an evolving profession, and with international travel, people are getting exposed to new diseases, so for technologists, professional development is a way of life," Davis explains.

This is a career that Brenda Murphy really enjoys. She specializes in cytogenetics and molecular genetics, which involve analysing DNA to pinpoint and identify health issues.

"It's multi-disciplined. You're using your brain. Not the same thing every day and I definitely like meticulous, extremely organized work," Murphy says.
Working as a medical lab technologist
Salary: From $30,000 for new graduates to $60,000 for senior technologists.

Education: Two, three and four-year programs are available.

Prerequisites: Some of the programs for general or diagnostic technologists accept high school graduates with a strong science background. Others call for a previous year of university study.

Qualities: A keen interest in science, a good problem-solving mind, a meticulous nature.

More information:

It's also high-pressure, and if you make a mistake it could cost a life. For instance, lab technologists check fluid samples extracted from pregnant women's wombs to check if the fetus has any genetic diseases.

Some parents, if they are told their child has a disease like Down's Syndrome, will abort the fetus. Here, technologists hold the huge responsibility of making sure their diagnostic information is correct.

Brenda's speciality, molecular genetics, hit the headlines in 1994 during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. There, the study of the DNA of a blood sample taken from the crime scene was compared with O.J.'s DNA -- and it matched.

Simpson's lawyers defended him by questioning the practices of the laboratory technologists, asking how they carried out the test and whether the blood sample was left out too long.

In other cases, DNA testing has helped prove people's innocence. David Milgaard was convicted in 1969 of raping and murdering a nurse. After 23 years in jail, DNA tests proved he hadn't committed the crime.

After federal government budget cuts in the 1990s, a number of technologist training courses in Ontario were shut down. Today, that has resulted in a shortage of technologists in the health industry.

"Now's a good time to get into the field," says Betsy Mecuri, the CSMLS director of education and certification. "And these days, technologists can just about move anywhere in Canada they want."

(Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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