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Ryan Dial (CLS ’20) is on a mission to serve others. Specifically, he aims to improve health education and outcomes in Indigenous communities throughout North Carolina, including the Lumbee Tribe, of which he is an active member. An ever-present thirst for knowledge has prompted Dial, a 2020 graduate of the B.S. in Clinical Laboratory Science (CLS) program and current M.S. in CLS candidate, to shift his focus on health care from within the traditional laboratory setting to the public health sphere.

An Eagerness to Learn in the Lab

Dial decided to pursue Clinical Laboratory Science as his major during his first year at the University of North Carolina. In addition to receiving his undergraduate degree from the CLS program, he also earned a minor in American Indian studies. Pursuing both areas of education allowed Dial to combine his interest in health care with his personal heritage.

Immediately following graduation in 2020, Dial simultaneously started working in the lab at UNC Hospitals and began his pursuit of a M.S. in Medical Laboratory Science (MLS). “I knew an undergraduate degree would not be the end of my academic career, because I know there is so much more to continue learning,” said Dial. “I knew that I wanted to advance my career even though I don’t fully know what my career will look like down the road.”

The master’s program is a flexible, online program designed for lab professionals who are already certified and working in the field. Dial notes that most laboratory professionals don’t return to graduate school, as the graduate level progression of education in the field is fairly new as the field continues to evolve and grow. The Division of Clinical Laboratory Science’s M.S. program is one of only a few that exist across the country. Dial was encouraged to pursue the program by faculty member Shawn Luby, who offered guidance about the broad career options that could present themselves after completing the program.

“I was excited about working in the lab but knew I wouldn’t spend my entire career there,” said Dial. “I wanted to be ready to branch out when the time came.”

Combining Laboratory Science with Public Health to Improve Native Health Outcomes

The opportunity to “branch out” happened more quickly than Dial expected. In August of 2023, after three years working in the lab, a new job opportunity took him by surprise. He is now a program manager for the Southeastern American Indian Cancer Health Equity Partnership (SAICEP) at Lineberger Cancer Center, a position that holds extra weight for Dial as a member of the Lumbee Tribe.

“My identity as a member of the Lumbee tribe is a huge part of my life, and American Indian health has always been important to me on a personal level,” said Dial. “My boss is someone I’ve known for my entire life and is also Lumbee. He recruited me to this position and it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Although the new position at Lineberger has been a shift away from working in a hospital lab to a more typical office job, Dial has found much meaning and purpose in his role. “SAICEP is a new initiative with a mission to address cancer health needs in American Indian communities,” said Dial. “My work involves applying for grants, community outreach and health education.” The health outreach often involves attending tribal events and health fairs to meet tribe members, share information about available health resources and promote data and results of research projects to the community. “We work to make sure the health education and data is presented in a way that is culturally relevant and adapted to the tribal community,” explains Dial.

In addition to his role as project manager for Lineberger, Dial also works for the Healthy Native North Carolinians program housed within the American Indian Center on UNC’s campus. In this position Dial and his team supports tribal-led health initiatives by awarding grants to tribal communities throughout the state. “Our goal is to form connections and communication between UNC’s resources and the Native community across the state,” said Dial. “We provide these communities resources to start or continue existing and impactful health programs.”

“What I do within my jobs reflects who I am – I’m a professional, a researcher, and a part of these Native communities that I now work with.”

Dial still sees himself as a clinical laboratory scientist, even as his career has shifted more toward the field of public health. “With cancer health, screenings and testing are incredibly important, so I often find myself talking with others about the work done within the lab and how we can bring them to be more accessible in tribal communities,” he said.

His research for his upcoming capstone project is focused on the Lumbee community’s utilization of laboratory tests, and he was pleased to have a large number of responses to the survey he distributed to this group. “Native communities need better utilization of laboratory tests, especially screenings outside of a diagnosis, before health problems become major issues,” he said.

Looking Ahead: Education, Research and Community Outreach

Dial will always fall back to his laboratory science education when it comes to mapping out his future work with native communities. “People in my community often ask me questions about their blood work, and I try to encourage them to have conversations with their physicians regarding diagnoses and recommendations,” he said. “There is a gap between lab testing and receiving results along with an explanation from physicians, and I hope to further promote the need for testing and follow-up in native communities.”

Although his career might be shifting more toward a public health focus, Dial plans to keep his laboratory science credentials up to date and follow the latest research in the field. He also hopes to encourage other laboratory professionals to consider branching out into the public health space. “I’ve been encouraged by the faculty at UNC who have been excited about my work, even though it is a bit different from what other students have presented in the past,” said Dial. “We as lab professionals are performing and studying laboratory tests, we understand their utility and methodology, and we can position that knowledge along with other health professionals to collaborate with regard to research and community outreach in the public health space. There is room for everyone to work together to advance health outcomes in native communities.”

As he wraps up his master’s program this spring, Dial is already looking to apply to a PhD program that focuses on indigenous health and plans to work on his next degree while continuing to work full-time. “What I do for work and what I want to continue studying in school are intertwined, and I want them to complement each other,” he said. “I hope to continue researching and bringing clinical laboratory science into public and community health.”

Dial admits that his initial five- and 10-year plans have shifted since he began working in his current positions, as he has shifted from work in the lab to community outreach and public health education. He also hopes to have opportunities to teach in the future, particularly about American Indian Health, both on campus and beyond.

Importantly, Dial plans to continue being an active participant in his Lumbee community. Outside of his community outreach work, for years he has traveled across the state as a performer – dancing and playing the flute – sharing the richness of the Lumbee culture and traditions with others in North Carolina. He hopes that his deep ties to his community will also support his work in community health education, which he notes can often happen informally in various community settings.

Representation Matters

Even amidst his many work- , community- and school-related commitments, Dial finds time to educate and encourage others looking to make their way in the fields of health sciences and American Indian studies.

In March, he participated in the Health Equity Summit hosted by North Carolina A&T, where he spoke about his career to undergraduate students interested in public health. He shared about his unique journey and what it’s like to be a laboratory scientist, and the role of laboratory science in public health.

Just a month later, Dial was a panelist at UNC’s Race, Racism and Racial Equity (R3) symposium, which specifically highlighted indigenous researchers across campus. He and the other panelists shared their work and highlighted American Indian research, including the various avenues available for future studies.