Kaitlin Walsh ‘19, an alumna of the Division of Clinical Laboratory Science, found a passion for cancer research as she pursued her undergraduate degree in clinical laboratory science. Walsh knew she wanted to launch a career in medicine but sought a non-patient-facing role. When she discovered the field of laboratory science, she was drawn to it. “My goal was to get into that program,” she said.
The two-year bachelor’s degree program is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. Often, clinical laboratory scientists work alongside health science professionals as part of an interdisciplinary team, and their research provides high-quality laboratory results and improvements in clinical outcomes. In 2019, the division launched a practical research opportunity where students could apply the skills they learn in their research methods course—and Walsh jumped at the chance to be a part of the new curriculum.
“They recognized that research is a really important part of science, and they wanted to incorporate that into the program,” Walsh said.
Tara Moon, an associate professor in the division, mentored Walsh. Moon said the research process promotes valuable competencies for undergraduates who are preparing for professional roles and said she enjoys fostering those opportunities.
“Undergraduate research can strengthen certain skill sets, such as written and oral communication, critical thinking, technical skills, and information literacy,” Moon said.
Walsh explained that the research element of the program at the undergraduate level gives alumni a competitive edge and is important because it builds a multitude of skills that could ultimately affect patient care outcomes. “[Research] is taking what you learn in the lab and then translating that knowledge to a clinical setting,” Walsh said. “You have to know what to prioritize in order to achieve your goal.”
After graduating in 2019, Walsh put her research skills into practice by accepting a job at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City as a member of the clinical chemistry research team. While she describes her work as behind the scenes, Walsh is responsible for conducting research and clinical testing for people with cancer. Her undergraduate research in transfusion medicine and in validating a new antibody detection procedure will be published in an upcoming edition of the Clinical Laboratory Science Journal.
“Research in clinical laboratory is eye-opening to the processes that go into creating new tests,” Walsh said. “Ultimately, you know that the research you’re doing to validate these tests is going to be worth it down the road. These tests are directly related to the quality of care patients receive, and it’s a good feeling knowing that you took part in that process.”
While her job at Sloan Kettering can be demanding, Walsh said the CLS program prepared her well. The rigorous program consists of class time and labs, which provide hands-on experience. “It was like having a full-time job. After spending a full day in lectures and labs or clinical rotations, you still had to be motivated to do homework and study,” she said.
Despite the workload, Walsh stressed how she was taught the importance of time management, self-motivation, and prioritization. “The CLS program sets you up for success. I felt extremely prepared for my post-college job.”
Walsh has spent the past year and a half at Sloan Kettering and hopes to continue her research endeavors. She said she hopes to continue to work in patient care or perhaps pursue additional education. At UNC-CH, Walsh was a Louise M. Ward scholar.
“You really do learn a lot,” Walsh said. “I’m directly collaborating with my coworkers and teammates, but at the same time, I know I’m behind the scenes helping with patient diagnoses and prognoses.”
The Division of Clinical Laboratory Science is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, part of the UNC School of Medicine. Susan Beck, PhD, MLS(ASCP)CM, has served on the faculty since 1980. Tara Moon, PhD, MLS(ASCP)CM has served on the faculty since 2002.
-Hanna Williams, Public Relations Intern