In the 1970s, Mary Jonah was a hard-working college student seeking a bachelor’s degree in science education to become a teacher. But her path in life was about to take a drastic turn.
“I completed my bachelor’s degree and got certified as a teacher, but there was one problem: I quickly learned teaching wasn’t my calling,” Jonah said, laughing. “Teaching is very challenging, but it just wasn’t for me.”
As Jonah began looking into different career options, she decided to attend a recruitment session at the Medical College of Georgia.
“I remember MCG was mainly recruiting dental and medical students. I wasn’t really interested in those professions, but I saw some flyers that were left out on a table,” she said. “There was a little pamphlet about medical technology. I picked it up and read the flyer. It explained what medical technology was all about and I thought it sounded interesting.”
She learned that clinical laboratory scientists develop and evaluate new procedures, maintain quality assurance, educate health care professionals and manage the laboratory.
“I knew I wanted a place where I could use my brain to figure out things,” she added. “I found that place in the laboratory.”
Life in the lab
By 1976, Jonah had completed her medical technology degree and began working at the Medical College of Georgia. Now, after 47 years working for both the Medical College of Georgia and Augusta University Medical Center, Jonah is retiring from the profession she loves on Feb. 28.
“Honestly, I fell into this field accidentally,” said Jonah, who is the current manager of Core Lab Operations at Augusta University Health. “But I stayed here because of the challenge. I knew here, at the Medical College of Georgia, we would be receiving interesting patients and I love problem-solving.”
Over the years, Jonah has had the opportunity to work in both the clinical and research side of the laboratory.
“I sort of lived in two worlds,” she explained. “Usually, you have the research side and then you have clinical people, like me, who work to produce data and information for direct patient care. But I was lucky and I was able to do both in my career.”
For years, Jonah participated in research involving blood coagulation conducted by Dr. J.S. Krauss from the Department of Pathology at MCG.
“Coagulation became my area of expertise,” Jonah said, explaining a coagulation cascade is a series of steps in response to bleeding caused by tissue injury. “Basically, people bleed or people clot. And we were looking at, how can you prevent a person from doing either one of those too much, because there needs to be a balance. If there is not a balance, bad things can happen to a patient. It was a challenge to find out why coagulation was happening.”
Thinking outside the box
Even as a child growing up in Albany, Georgia, Jonah said she has always been fascinated with science.
“I remember in high school, I did a project studying genetics for my biology class,” Jonah said. “I made my mom go out and buy me a white mouse and a black mouse. And I did some genetic crossing with the mice to see how mixing the black and white mice would turn out.
“I had to do a couple of generations of the mice to see the different changes, so we had a lot of mice at the end of the experiment,” Jonah added, laughing. “My mom wasn’t so sure about those mice, but my parents let me do it because they knew how much I enjoyed science.”
When Jonah received her medical technology degree in 1976, she was one of only three Black students in her class. However, she quickly learned medical technology was a female-dominated field.
“Back then, it was practically only women,” she said. “Today, we have many men in different roles in this field. But in the 1970s, there were mainly just women, so I had some good female mentors over the years.”
Jonah has returned the favor by mentoring and training others going into the profession.
“Even though I thought I left teaching a long time ago, I am still very passionate about training and teaching,” she said. “Our clinical laboratory science students rotate through our laboratory as part of their program and we train about 10 to 12 students per year. I will really miss that part of the job.”
huge demand for clinical lab scientists
As more employees continue to retire from the Core Laboratory, Jonah hopes new students will consider studying clinical laboratory science because there is a huge demand for scientists in the field. The Core Lab currently has dozens of openings that Augusta University is still trying to fill.
“In my area alone, I have nine openings right now,” Jonah said, explaining that most applicants aren’t qualified because, while they may have the appropriate degrees, they do not have the required certification. “And, unfortunately, it’s just not a field that is well recognized or promoted in high school and college. But we are trying to let people know what we do and how desperate we are for people to come into the field.”
In fact, Augusta University offers a tuition reimbursement program that will pay for a student’s education if they agree to get certified and go into the field.
“It’s heartbreaking because we get so many people applying for jobs in our area, but we can’t hire them without the certification,” she said. “During my last two weeks before I retire, I am working hard to find people who meet the minimum qualification.”
Over the past several years during the pandemic, the Core Lab has received more attention because of the antibody testing it has performed to determine whether a patient has previously had COVID-19.
“Due to COVID, people now know what we do,” Jonah said. “But unfortunately, it took a pandemic for people to know who we are, where we are and what we do.”
While Jonah is looking forward to enjoying more time with her family and traveling with her husband, she said she will miss the day-to-day challenges of managing the Core Lab.
“A good challenge is what has kept me here all these years,” Jonah said. “I’m a problem-solver. The minute you say, ‘There’s a problem,’ I’m trying to pull it apart to see how I can fix it. I will miss that challenge and the people I work with, but it’s time.”
“My husband is from Nigeria, so we want to visit his family there along with his family in London and in Canada,” Jonah added. “So, while I’ll miss the lab, I’m ready for a new adventure.”