Research: Medical Laboratory Science capstone project

South Dakota State boasts a modern, well-equipped facility for medical laboratory science (MLS). However, it’s what these young people do off-campus that puts the finishing touch on their education.

Pat Tille, MLS department director

Pat Tille, MLS department director

MLS students complete a rigorous 22-week training regimen known as a capstone project. The work involves real patients, takes place in hospitals and clinics that partner with State, and is an example of an experiential learning scenario that helps ease students into a challenging career.

Perhaps the best part of the whole initiative is that the capstone project benefits the student, the clinical partner and the university.

“It has been a lot of hard work and long nights, but being in clinicals and being excited to be in the laboratory every single day makes it all worth it,” said Amanda Graves, a senior MLS student from Fulda, Minnesota.

This graded experience includes challenging students with complex patient scenarios, exams and hands-on work in a partnering clinic.

“(The student’s) actual capstone occurs when they are out in clinicals,” said Pat Tille, MLS department director. “The students actually get permission to really dig into a patient record that is more than just the lab work.”

The experience exposes students to radiology, pathology and doctor’s notes. Students then assemble a professional case study. The capstone project is a case study of a patient admitted into the student’s partnering clinic. When selecting a person for their case, students look for patient records with unusual health issues or diseases.

The students are allowed special access to patient information that is confidential, and the case study is the platform by which the student’s previous work all comes together.

“There is a standardized format for (these studies), and if they’re well done, then we work with the student to actually get them published,” Tille said. “What that does is it gives the student a broader knowledge of how it really works, but it also gives them a professional publication.”

Creating a full case study worthy of publishing is a tedious and time-consuming process.

“Our capstone objectives are directed to fit the (academic) journal requirements, but it still takes work to get it from student form to published form,” Tille said. “There is usually between six months to a year after the student has actually graduated that it is published.”

Having a published article in a peer-reviewed publication is an impressive accomplishment to include on a resume, and MLS students have had outstanding success in their job searches.

“We had a student this year who after six days (working with their partnering clinic) was offered a job,” Tille said.

Of course, not every student lands a job in less than a week, but that doesn’t mean the program’s placement rating isn’t impressive: It’s 100 percent.

With an eye pressed to a microscope or a keyboard under their fingertips, a medical laboratory scientist collects, processes and analyzes biological specimens. These are the specimens sent to the lab by physicians for analysis. Medical laboratory scientists cross-match blood tests, evaluate patient cell and tissue samples and even conduct research and evaluate new testing methods.

These scientists are needed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and hospitals and reference laboratories can’t afford to take a day off with patient lives hanging in the balance. The field is technologically oriented and demanding. It is for this very challenge that the MLS department prepares its students.

The success of the MLS program, and that of its students, is closely tied to the structure of the program and the process of taking education out of the labs and lecture halls.

“Experiential learning really solidifies the knowledge for the students. Our program is highly imbedded in that idea,” Tille said. “The actual real-world experience is what makes it all come together. You can only get so much out of the book and from the lectures.”

That means MLS students aren’t limited to the traditional class-to-class structure, and this allows them to gain the necessary experience they need to walk confidently into their field.

“I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” Graves said. “You realize when you get to clinicals what you have spent two years learning, and you make a difference every day.”

Matt Richardson

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