I recently spoke with Kathy Hardy, President of the California Society of Histotechnology, about her experiences in histotechnology, microtome blades, and superstition in the histology lab. It was a really interesting conversation! Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
What was your path into histology?
I like to know how things work. Because of this, I always knew I’d want to be involved with research somehow. I honestly fell into histology. I started working at Syntex in animal husbandry, and I moved into histology when I heard there was an opening. I was trained on the job, and then passed my boards in 1982. I remember during the practicum I was sweating bullets! Now they don’t even do a practicum anymore because of the changes in automation.
What do you like about being a histotech?
It’s hard not to fall in love with histology. I love to troubleshoot. I love to do things with my hands. If something doesn’t work, I want to know why and like being able to fix it.
What’s your least favorite part of histology?
I’m not crazy about changing and cleaning the equipment.
You’ve worked in both clinical and research histology labs. How do you think they differ?
I’ve spent over 20 years working at pharmaceutical companies, but now I work for a small clinical lab. The duties of a histotech can include many different things depending on where you work. If you’re on the research side of things, your job duties may be entirely different than clinical.
In research, especially at smaller institutions, you may work with all tissue types and do every step from grossing through to staining and coverslipping yourself. At Syntex, a pharmaceutical company that was acquired by Roche, we did everything. I often helped with necropsy and in some cases at small facilities you may even dose the animals. Protocols and SOPs are very important in research.
One major difference to me between research and clinical histology labs is the time schedule. In research, you tend to work from 7 or 8 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m., whereas in a clinical lab you may have shifts that work overnight or start very early in the morning. Turn-around time is very important in all histology labs, but when it’s for patients, every minute counts.
You worked in sales for several years. How did you like sales and how does it inform your work now?
I love sales and had a really fun time doing it. I like to be out and about and working with clients. It helped me learn how to troubleshoot, work with upper management, and know which equipment works well. I also know more about profit margins and better understand how to think about the lab from a business perspective.
While working in sales, we had a competition for how many blades we could sell. If you sold the most, you won a free trip to the blade manufacturing plant. I won in 2006! I got to visit the plant in Japan that makes a variety of razor blades for shaving. Crazy that they also make microtome blades!
Wow, so you must know a lot about microtome blades.
Pathologists can see the difference between sections cut with high quality microtome blades and sections cut with a low quality blades. A good blade makes cutting easy and gives you a nice, thin cut. It has to be sharp and durable. Think about it like a good pen – even if it fits perfectly in your hand, if it doesn’t write well, it’s useless.
Getting people to change their preference for microtome blades is tricky, though. Histotechs are really superstitious. We won’t admit we are, but we are. We like to have all our tools in a certain position; we load samples in the same way every time. And don’t you dare change the settings on a microtome that someone else has been using! It’s all very repetitious and becomes a pattern. Once someone has their routine down and it’s working, it’s hard to get them to change anything in their workflow. But, if you encourage folks to try something and they see in their own hands that it’s better, then they’ll be happy to make the change to improve their work.
What is the weirdest tissue type you’ve ever cut?
I’ve cut all tissue types you can think of, but eyes are definitely tricky and some of the the weirdest tissue I’ve cut! Also, cutting the cochlea of the ear in cryostat studies is very difficult because it’s so delicate. One turn too far and its gone.
Thanks so much, Kathy!