Q&A with Katie Ford: Pathologists’ Assistant in training
The Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto has launched a unique professional Masters program: the MHSc in Laboratory Medicine.
Designed to train highly qualified laboratory professionals in the fields of Pathologists’ Assistant (PA) and Clinical Embryology (CE), the two-year program accepted its first cohort of students in Fall 2020.
We speak to Katie Ford, in her second year of the Pathologists’ Assistant field, about what it’s been like to be one of the first students in a pioneering program.
Why did you apply to be in the MHSc in Lab Medicine PA field?
I found out about the PA profession from a high school co-op placement, and it was always in the back of my mind as a potential career. I was graduating from my undergrad in Biomedical Sciences from Ryerson and looking for my next step when somebody mentioned this program to me. The timing was perfect, so it felt like it was meant to be.
You are the first cohort in a brand-new program – what’s that been like?
I’ve found it exciting to be the first graduating class. We’re paving the way and helping mold the program so students can get the most out of it in the future. There have been a few bumps along the way, but the program team is always very interested in our feedback and looking for ways to improve.
You’re being trained in the practical aspects of being a PA, but also a large element of scientific research and rigor – how will that benefit your future career?
We’re going to be practicing PAs so the practical training is essential, but the research experience opens more doors for our careers. Whether we want to get more involved in research or teaching, it gives us a background so we're able to make those decisions. We can do this job and more.
What has your learning progression been like through the program?
There is a huge difference between first and second year. First year was all theoretical and preparing us to succeed in our research project and the background we need for our careers. We did a lot of statistics, basics of biomedical research, backgrounds in pathology and anatomy - and we were able to do a cadaver lab, which was very helpful.
Our second year has covered a lot more of the practical aspects. We were well prepared though as we attended a two-week ‘Bootcamp’ at the start of term where the five of us were split between two sites and taught about the basics of the profession and preparing us to be successful in our practicums.
We have an academic half day and get some lectures each week, but we spend most of our time in hospital rotations. The majority of our lectures are delivered by practicing PAs - being taught by those currently working in the field is incredibly valuable.
All five of us in the PA field are in different hospitals at the moment so we only see each other during the academic half days. We have made genuine friendships and we all keep in regular contact and support each other so we still have a sense of community despite being more dispersed in our second year.
How have you been taught the practical aspects of the profession?
We are completing six-week rotations in laboratories which I love. We all came into this program wanting to be PAs so spending all day working with those already in the profession gives us a real feel for it.
A very important part of being a PA is collaboration and communication. We’re not only being taught technical skills, but these vital transferrable skills of how to troubleshoot problems and most importantly, how to interact and communicate with colleagues, pathologists and other members of the wider healthcare team.
It can be quite nerve-wracking going into a new lab. You're the student and everyone else has been there for years, with each lab doing things slightly differently. There’s an adjustment each time but it’s an amazing way to show us what it’s going to be like when we do graduate, and it teaches us adaptability. There's no better way to prepare yourself for a career than to actually do it and be in the situation.
What has been the highlight for you so far?
I'm really enjoying the practicums. Some of the experiences I get exposed to are just incredible.
Rotating through the different sites means we experience different specialties like trauma, breast centres, perinatal, sarcomas, autopsy. Being in these big hospitals in downtown Toronto means you see specimens you’re unlikely to see in a community hospital. For example, I got to work on specimens from a shooting incident which was fascinating - something I may never see again in my life.