I had a great time talking with Leslie Hackert about her career in histology, safety in the lab, and how veterinary histology differs from clinical histology. Below are some excerpts from our conversation that I thought were really interesting.
What was your path into histology?
I’ve worked for almost 20 years in some kind of pathology, including phlebotomy and microbiology. My introduction into histotechnology was a bit of an accident. I wanted to continue working in a field related to research. I was hired for customer support, but on my first day at IDEXX they needed me in histology and that’s where I’ve stayed.
I learned histology on the job. I think going to school and learning on the job both work out well. Everyone can cook, but not everyone can be a great chef. You have to have a certain passion and interest for what you’re doing if you want to be good at it.
How would you describe histotechnology?
Once you understand the chemical reactions and the science behind things, it’s like cooking. You have to understand the chemistry and why each step is important in order to optimize things.
You can’t think of it just as a job. When you’re cutting, its someone’s loved one or pet that you’re working for. With pets, you have to remember that most people don’t have insurance that covers the cost of these procedures. People are paying enormous amounts of money for these biopsies so you want to give them the best quality possible.
My job affects what the pathologist reads – they have a certain trust in what I’ve done. Histotechs have an important relationship with pathologists that’s built on trust and respect. You rely on each other all the time. And of course, you’d hate to have to recut a sample…
What appeals to you about working in a histology lab?
In histology, there’s always something new to learn. You can’t be complacent. New innovations and new ways of doing things are being developed all the time. I love learning, so I’m always attending histoconventions and scouring the internet trying to find new ways to do things, especially when I’m doing special stains. I’ll see what’s been written and published, and if I find what seems like a better way, I’ll try it out and see if it works. The Histotechnology DST study group is a great resource, for example. They explain the chemical reaction, give different tricks, and provide a variety of resources related to different stains.
There is always room for innovation and improvement, too. If I don’t like something, I always ask if there is a better way. For example, I was cutting amyloids at 8 and 10 microns. That’s really thick. Then I read a post from a university pathologist who said they’d started cutting at 6 to 8 microns because the resolution of microscopes has improved greatly. Now I cut amyloids at 7 microns. There was an old way, but there is now a better way because technology has improved.
The best part of my job is teaching new technicians the techniques and new procedures I have learned over the years and that the learning never stops.
Where do you get your histology information from?
I read The Journal of Histotechnology as well as Veterinary Pathology. University Pathology sites have a lot of good information. I’m a member of the National Society of Histotechnology and I read their e-news brief and Advance for Laboratory Professionals. Many of us go to conventions and seminars – both regional and national. They always have a ton of different classes you can learn from. One time I saw a lecture in Rhode Island by Freida Carson who wrote the histology textbook! She was working a long time ago before we had a lot of information and had to figure out what worked and what didn’t on her own – which is amazing! It’s really incredible that we still use a lot of the same chemicals that she was using back then.
I also read a lot of histology forums. You can learn a lot from other histotechs comments – everyone has their own little tricks and techniques.
You’re on the safety committee for IDEXX . What things do you focus on to make the lab safer?
Histotechnology was voted the most damaging job to your health in the country, primarily because we use a lot of carcinogenic chemicals. For example, we used to clean microtomes with xylene – it melted gloves!! But, we’re learning that there are easier safer ways to do things, and funnily enough they turn out to be more cost effective, too.
In histology, the main safety concerns include good air quality, preventing cuts at the microtome and while grossing, disposal of hazardous chemicals, and personal protective equipment. Sometimes in veterinary tissues you can find a needle or scalpel, which is a major concern. If we want people to enter into the field of histology, we need to make it safe! If everyone believes in the improvements, costs can go down and safety can become a competitive edge.
IDEXX definitely focuses on safety. For example, we use automatic microtomes now, which are easier on the wrists and elbows and help to prevent repetitive motion injuries. We have automatic stainers too, so we do a lot less hand-dipping of slides. IDEXX is always willing to see if there is a safer method of doing things.
How does working in veterinary histology differ from clinical histology?
The workload, tasks, and skills required are similar. The main difference is how things are regulated. The animal world is usually self-regulating. At IDEXX, we do our own internal quality audits. We also work hard to ensure there is standardization so that a customer in Arizona gets the same quality that a customer in Boston gets.
In veterinary histology, I think you get to bounce around in the lab a bit more. My boss will rotate us through various tasks to keep things interesting.
How do you think histology labs will change in the next few years?
In general, there are a lot of new technologies being incorporated. For example, everything is becoming paperless. Every lab will have a 3D barcode scanner soon enough.
Digital pathology will become more widely used, especially in clinical labs. IDEXX is already doing a lot of digital pathology. We scan all of our slides and can then quickly email the final results to pathologists around the country. This allows us to avoid having to ship things, which saves us money and saves vets’ time. Digital pathology is especially useful if you want a second opinion – now you can just send a quick email!
Digital cameras are also being incorporated into grossing – vets will send us pictures of what the tissue looked like before, during, and after surgery. This is very helpful to everyone involved and should be used more often.
What are some of the craziest tissues you’ve cut at IDEXX?
In veterinary histology, 90% of tissues are from dog, cat and rabbit. However, I see so many different species. The other day I cut a lemur, and I’ve had wolf, jaguar, and even bird feathers. I’m often cutting amphibians and things from aquariums that you wouldn’t see elsewhere. The most obscure tissue I’ve ever cut was from a Dragonface Pipefish. One time, we got a rattlesnake! They’re venomous even when they’re dead.
What’s interesting in how similar organs and tissues are in different species. You can pick out a liver in almost any animal.
What’s the most difficult tissue you’ve ever cut?
Cutting cow eyes is tricky. The vet was looking for a disease found in the vitreous fluid of the eyeball. Eyeballs in general are very difficult to cut.
What advice do you have for a new histotechnologists?
I always tell new people – never be afraid! Some things you just have to learn and practice over time.
Every day I have to learn something new! I don’t know everything… It never ends. If the learning stopped, it wouldn’t be as exciting. It feels really good to get a base knowledge down, but I always have the chance to learn something new.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love to gross. In grossing, you are thinking all the time – you have to pay close attention so you don’t miss key features or landmarks you’re looking for. But doing special stains is my mini vacation. I love doing special stains because they’re like cooking.
I also love it when something usual comes in that we haven’t seen before.
What are your hobbies? What do you do in your free time?
I go to all my sons sporting events. And I like to read a lot. I do a lot of hiking and outdoor stuff. And I love to cook – it’s my Sunday zen.
I also have pets. I just got a new rescue dog, and I have a cat and a rabbit.
Thanks so much for a really interesting conversation, Leslie! I learned so much from you.
If you liked this interview, check out previous interviews here:
Histology Thought Leaders.
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