[Histonet] Retirement in sight!
Timothy.Morken at ucsf.edu
Thu Sep 9 11:26:11 CDT 2021
After 40 years in the lab I've decided to retire this year - in a week actually!
It has been an interesting 4 decades...
I started out in an EM lab after getting a degree in Physiology and then competing a 2 year EM course at Delta College in Stockton, CA - the only dedicated EM program at that time. I started out running a scanning EM lab for an electronics company looking at microchips but after a couple years moved to a hosptial lab in Fresno, CA running their EM lab. I was the only one, so from day one was the "Manager" of the lab! I did about 150 EM cases a year and in those days it was a mix of kidney and tumor cases - there was no IHC yet so some tumor diagnostics depended on EM. I did not have quite enough work to keep me busy so I started hanging out in the histology lab. As with many people in this field the day I started working there was the first I had heard of "histology." At first it was helping set up grossing, coverslipping slides and doing immunofluorescence for the kidney cases (and taking "kodachromes" of the results! Does anyone under 30 know what a Kodachrome is?!). But then our director wanted to bring in IHC and so had a tech from a lab at Cedars Sinai in LA come to teach us how to do it. We did all of 10 stains at first. Of course it was all manual and so had to know what was going on with every step. I didn't use an automated stainer for the first 12 years that I did IHC, and at times was doing 150 slides a day manually.
Gradually I ended up doing half time in histology and learned cutting, special stains, muscle histochemistry, immunofluorescence for kidney cases. I decided to work on the HT exam since I was doing all that work anyway. We had a lab of four men - pretty rare, Imagine - and we started a study group to all take the test. We met after work a couple times a week for 6 months pretty much memorizing the Sheehan book. We all took the HT and all but one passed. Later I passed the HTL as well.
After 11 years of that I moved on to a job in Saudi Arabia - and my wife and daughter went along. I managed the IHC and muscle lab at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. My wife was lucky enough to get a teaching position at the American School where our daughter was in 9th grade. That made all the difference in our life there because if she had not gotten a job I don't think we would have stayed there 5 years. She would have been stuck doing pretty much nothing. I moved on to managing the histology lab as whole. Living in another country is a great experience, even if it is a totally different culture. It certainly changed our outlook on the world and I would not trade that experience for anything. We also did a lot of travelling during those years - being on "that" side of world makes traveling there much easier!
Once we decided to leave Saudi I looked for a job back in the States and was lucky enough to land one at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in their Infectious Disease Pathology division. I worked with 5 infectious disease pathology specialists and a dozen technologists from histotechs to EM techs, to microbiologists to molecular biologists. We worked on routine cases to world-wide outbreak cases. During the 5 years I was there we identified at least one novel human virus every year that caused outbreaks. And that was in addition to numerous cases of outbreaks of known diseases for which we received samples from all over the world. Probably the most notorious case was the anthrax attack after 9/11. Four of us histotechs manned the lab 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 6 weeks running IHC tests on endless samples while trying to get on top of that case. In the middle of it all the power went out to the facility and we had to work on generator power with temporary lighting set up in the lab and battery packs to keep the equipment running. After 9/11 and then anthrax everyone was thinking it was a bioterror attack by the same group, so things were crazy. When I think of all the efforts we made to enhance our detection and diagnostic capabilities, and all our meetings about how to handle outbreaks, it was hard to see the stumbles the CDC made in this current pandemic. But I can say that we had discussed, studied and predicted pretty much everything that has happened in this Covid 19 era. Indeed, we had the first-hand experience with SARS in the last year I was there, so knew exactly how it could play out.
Finally we decided to move back to California and I was able to connect with an old friend to get a position at Lab Vision in Fremont, CA. This company made the Dako Autostainer and also had a large offering of antibodies. We only had 25 people but were doing very well and still had a "Startup" culture. That was a very interesting experience after being on the "customer" side for so long. I got to see a lot of different labs, go to a lot of meetings, make a lot of contacts and travel to many other countries to work with distributors. I would recommend working for vendor to anyone to get a real idea of the whole breadth of our field.
Once Lab Vision was taken over by Thermo Fisher it became very corporate I decided to go back to the medical lab and ended up at UCSF managing the histology lab. After a few years of that I moved back to the EM lab after the supervisor there retired and they could not find anyone else. So, I ended up back in the place I began! But it is a great place with great people so has been a very good time the last 12 years.
When I think back, I started in the lab when the only automation was the tissue processor. Even our specimen logs were all hand-written. Slide labels were typed on a typewriter - there were no computers. We had a staining run set up by a microtome so that person could move the slides along when the timer went off. And there was no fume hood over it, so the histo lab always smelled of xylene, alcohol and formalin fumes. People from outside the lab would come in and almost keel over. Our lab today has no smell at all - we have so many hoods nothing can escape! And much of the lab is automated - IHC, specials, H&E, embedding machines.
I always recommend to any new tech that they learn whatever there is to learn in any lab they happen to be in and to not be limited by a job description. You never know when some seemingly obscure thing you learn will come in handy down the road. Take opportunities as they come up. You never know if you will get that opportunity again.
Anyway, it has been a good run. I hope to do some other things in in the histology world in the next few years. You never know what will come up!
Supervisor, Electron Microscopy/Neuromuscular Special Studies
Department of Pathology
UC San Francisco Medical Center
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