Dannalee Watson grew up in Jamaica, where she loved studying science. She knew she wanted to help people, but wasn’t sure what career path to pursue.
The principal of the school where she prepared for her university entrance exams recommended that Watson look into medical laboratory science. She did – and decided it was a great fit, because while she would be performing the critical laboratory tests that inform doctors’ decisions about treatment, she wouldn’t be seeing patients herself.
“You are impacting patients directly, but you’re not having that face-to-face interaction with them,” she says. “That fits well with my personality because I like being in the background, just focusing on my work.”
When Watson moved to Boston, she sought out college programs in medical lab science and found the medical laboratory technician degree program at Bunker Hill Community College, which was close to home. After a year, she transferred to UMass Lowell because she knew it was the fastest route to a bachelor’s degree – and a job as a board-certified medical lab scientist.
“The job outlook, even before COVID-19, is so amazing,” she says. “And when you graduate, you’re not just an assistant; you’re starting your career.”
Her favorite thing about UML’s Medical Laboratory Science Program is the lab classes, where she’s learning how to be a medical detective, examining blood, saliva, urine and other samples for signs of disease.
“You’re actually working with patient samples and you’re trying to figure out, ‘OK, what’s going on here?’ using the knowledge that you get in class,” she says. “The professors take their time with us and really work to train us so we are ready to go to our practicums. They all make you feel like you’re important in your own way. By the time you’re at my level, you’re part of the family.”
The summer after her junior year, she completed three of the five required clinical practicums, two at MelroseWakefield Hospital, in hematology and urinalysis, and one at Mount Auburn Hospital, in chemistry, looking at different bodily fluids for markers of cancer, diabetes, pregnancy and drug use.
Each hospital has different equipment, which she was trained to operate. She had to use her analytical skills, too, and call doctors with critical test results.
“No day is the same. It’s interesting: It’s like you’re figuring out a puzzle with your patient,” she says. “Then we can help the doctor make that decision. That’s the cool part.”
She will do two more practicums – one at a blood bank and the other at a hospital in microbiology – before graduating and taking her exams to become a board-certified medical lab scientist.
In the meantime, she’s serving as president of the Association of Clinical Laboratory Students, helping to organize professional networking and career exploration events for students in the medical lab science option as well as the clinical science option. She also wants to keep students focused on their studies during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many of their classes are online.
“We’re trying to provide some form of support and keep students in that learning environment by helping them form relationships within the major, form study groups and have some mentoring,” she says.