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Continuing Education in the Laboratory

The most successful teams never stop learning

by Sara Goudarzi
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When James A. Kaufman caused an accident in the lab within two weeks of his start date of working for a biochemical company at age 30, he realized that school hadn’t fully prepared him for the laboratory environment. That incident was the tipping point for Kaufman. Ever since, he’s spent more than four decades trying to figure out how to share with others some of what he has learned about safety through the Laboratory Safety Institute (LSi), which he founded.

“Since then, we've educated over 100,000 people in 30 countries, in 130 different kinds of laboratories,” says Kaufman, LSi’s founder and president emeritus. “We [also] publish a small document called the Laboratory Safety Guidelines, of which six million copies have been given away in 21 languages.” The institute provides courses, lectures, seminars, and workshops to labs. They also inspect laboratories, where representatives from LSi go in and compare what is, with what should be. Kaufman and his organization approach training through an important lens—safety—and he believes that in addition to initial training, continuing education is important in the success of a laboratory. “We all get careless,” he says. “We all need reminders from time to time. Everybody needs regular refresher training, whether it's every year, every day, [or] every week.”

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During trainings, people come up to Kaufman and tell him that they’ve been at the job for decades and never had a problem, and ask in earnest why they should make a big deal about safety now. To that, he replies: “Congratulations, I'm glad you haven't had a problem, but that’s not the question, the question is what would be the acceptable number of times to have x, y, or z happen? And I usually ask, how many times in a 40-year career do you want to have a piece of glass in your eyeball and generally the answer is zero.”

Training for Success

Safety is just one facet of continuing education. At Nelson Laboratories LLC, a full-service contract microbiology and chemistry lab serving the healthcare industry, with headquarters in Salt Lake City and several large labs in various states and smaller labs around the globe, frequent and wide-ranging training is an important aspect of ensuring operations run smoothly. “We have a variety of methods to determine training needs at Nelson Labs, including monitoring quality trends, doing annual talent reviews, and annual employee training documentation reviews,” says Jennifer L. Wilson, professional development manager, Nelson Laboratories LLC.

Training, Wilson explains, is not just key to a successful lab but the health of those depending on lab results: “In our industry, every test matters because the products that we test will be used on patients. Obtaining accurate results can literally be a matter of life and death. Getting and keeping our employees trained enables us to perform tests without deviating from the procedure and ensuring our customers get exact results.”

In addition to helping labs thrive and produce reliable results, training can allow individuals to further their personal goals. Such is the case for many scientists who might require additional skills to do so. The Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) is an organization that serves public health by representing US laboratories that monitor and respond to potential threats, such as a rabies or anthrax outbreak. Part of APHL’s work is training staff and scientists from the public health laboratory network throughout the country and in Puerto Rico. There are several modalities APHL utilizes, one of which is a year-long emerging leadership program.

“All of these people who are laboratory scientists at public health labs really know their science—they have got that down, no problem,” says Eva J Perlman, senior director, Training and Workforce Development at APHL. But as those people progress through their careers and become promoted to being supervisors or other management positions, they come to realize they might be missing certain leadership skills, effective communication tactics, ideas on how to motivate their team, good laboratory practices, ethics, safety issues, and how to tell a really good story, which involves translating analytics for people not in the sciences, in an effort to show impact. APHL’s program can help such folks make the career transition or take on additional roles and responsibilities. They also develop programs by utilizing a variety of modalities based on training assessments, new regulations that might come up, and new methodology or protocols by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “We will do webinars, seminars, [and] workshops that are experiential,” Perlman says. Workshops “have a component that requires the students actually sit at the bench, look through the microscope, prepare media, whatever it is. Those particular activities in most cases, especially those hands-on experiential workshops, are around topics that are very unique to a state or local public health laboratories.”

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Such programs are important because the science continues to become more and more complex and people need to stay updated. “When you overlay or underpin the advances in technology, it becomes sort of that hamster wheel or almost trying to keep up with all of those advancements in evolution of the science and the technology,” Perlman explains.

Training approaches

Every lab is unique and when it comes to continuing education, the leaders of each one must decide what works best for their team and goals. For some, intermittent formal training has a positive effect on keeping staff abreast of techniques and safety, while a less formal approach might be useful for others. At times, both are needed to meet the lab’s objectives. And even within a lab, the learning styles of staff members are not homogenous. It’s up to management to understand and decide on how best to train their personnel.

“Each person learns differently,” says Zachary S. Anderson, director, Laboratory Operations, Nelson Laboratories LLC. “Our Professional Development Department has done an excellent job of creating content and criteria for developing training materials and trainer approaches. The breakdown of tasks, qualification steps, and employee assessments also helps us to ensure that employees are prepared to succeed. An important part of our culture is also to listen to employees for feedback on what works and continually improve our processes.”

Further, everyone’s goals vary. Some employees want to broaden their knowledge. Others like to focus on one specific topic and become experts in that particular area. “For those employees, we have roles where they can focus on one test, one industry, or one sterilization method, and learn all they can about it,” Wilson says. “We send them to external industry training and to standards committee meetings through organizations such as AAMI, ISO, PDA, or ASTM.”

Another consideration is budget. Labs have a finite amount of resources to dedicate to training, which can be expensive and take the scientists or technicians away from their everyday work. When Perlman of APHL’s team performed a training assessment in 2018 and asked what the participants’ preferred learning method was, the top two responses were classroom and workshops, both of which can be costly.

“In order for you to go someplace and attend a workshop it means you're away from the bench so the work that you would typically be doing has to get rerouted to somebody else, if there is somebody else,” she says. “And when it comes to things like an online course, for example, then most often it's very difficult for a laboratory scientist within the public health lab to be able to access the computer to be able to participate in that online course during business hours.”

But training doesn't always have to be formal. Managers could instill a culture of learning as part of the lab’s routine activities, whether it’s by giving a short presentation at the beginning of weekly meetings or putting up a bulletin board, as a passive learning center with relevant information on techniques, procedures, or chemical safety sheets. Whatever combinations of methods each manager chooses, it’s ultimately a means to allow the staff and the laboratory to grow in order to produce reliable results for their clients.

“The most important aspect of the work we do is that at the end of every study and product life cycle is a person in need of care,” says Anderson. “When we hire great people, keep them motivated and engaged through challenging and important work, we positively affect global health. Supporting training and education is critical to our values.”