Ester Fernandez was interning at a local Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) office in Santa Rosa, Calif., when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. That’s when Ester’s job and goal of completing a 500-hour internship in order to be eligible for a career position as an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) came to a screeching halt.
“I started contemplating what I truly wanted from a career,” she recalls. “I already knew I wanted to do something in the sciences that helped others, but I now realized how essential job security was.”
Around the same time, Ester’s dog, Denver, became very ill and required surgery to have a tumor removed. Initially told the tumor that was aspirated was benign, the surgery and a biopsy revealed a test result of an aggressive blood vessel cancer called hemangiosarcoma.
“We were heartbroken. It was then that I realized exactly how laboratory results can dramatically change the course of someone’s life in addition to the lives of that individual’s loved ones, and how crucial it is to provide every patient with accurate results.”
Despite being close to completing her internship, these experiences heartened Ester to reconsider her career choices.
An Early Interest in Science
Ester’s parents had always made her education a priority. Her father had earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley, and she wanted to follow in her dad's footsteps and earn a degree in the sciences from a well-respected college.
“For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in science, which my parents encouraged. I was constantly making up my own experiments at home, enrolling in school science fairs, et cetera.”
But Ester got momentarily sidetracked from that career goal to pursue another love: art. “I went to art school for a year in Baltimore, Maryland,” she tells me. “I love painting and drawing; however, it did not take me long to realize that I could not provide the life I wanted with a career as an artist.”
So she returned home to Santa Rosa, and attended Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC).
“I took an elementary nutrition class that once again sparked my love of science,” Ester recalls. “Learning about nutrition ignited a fire that had been dim for quite some time. I decided I wanted to transfer to UC Davis with the goal of becoming a registered dietitian.
“However, once graduation got close, my peers were applying to dietetic internships but something was holding me back from that path—I had a feeling there was still something missing with this career. Instead, I decided to apply to graduate school for the Maternal and Child Nutrition program that was led by my community nutrition teacher, Dr. Jane Heinig, who had deeply inspired me. At this point, I wanted to become an IBCLC and possibly also finish my internship to become a dietitian.
“My biggest goal was finding a career in the sciences that revolved around helping others, and I was specifically drawn to working at a WIC office. Throughout my education at UC Davis and afterward, I ended up having two internships with WIC. Working with the underserved population confirmed my interests in finding a career that can help others.”
Finding Her Calling
“Prior to COVID-19, during the day I was interning at the local WIC office in Santa Rosa to complete the 500 hours for my internship in order to be eligible to take the board exam to become an IBCLC. In the evenings, I was working as a waitress to make ends meet.
“I was working long days every day of the week but I was committed to my career goal,” Ester says.
About a year before the virus hit, Ester’s mentor at WIC informed her that jobs as IBCLCs were very limited in the area where Ester lived (Sonoma County). “At the time of this discussion, I brushed off her advice and kept chugging along toward my goal.”
Then the coronavirus hit. And Denver got sick.
“After doing research to find the career that would fulfill my needs, I quickly came across what a clinical laboratory scientist (CLS) was,” Ester says, “and suddenly I found a clarity I had never before experienced—this was the path I had been searching for. The required attention to detail, the clinical atmosphere and the ability to help others is what confirmed my interest.”
With unwanted time on her hands, Ester was able to further research this new career path. And she found our CLS preparatory program.
Learning Clinical Laboratory Science
“Due to the pandemic, I was no longer working and was spending most of my time at home taking care of Denver as he went through chemo. The Clinical Laboratory Scientist Preparatory Program was the perfect fit for me at the time,” she says, “because it was offered through a well-known and well-respected school and in an online learning format that allowed me to take the classes from home and at my own pace.”
Registering for the program in June 2020 and completing it before the end of the year, Ester enrolled in:
And of those courses, Dr. Joseph Musallam’s teaching stood out to Ester.
“I took Dr. Musallam’s Virtual Hematology Laboratory course after the Hematology lecture course. This course was taught in the Live Online format, which made it more engaging, and I was able to really focus on the material.
“Dr. Musallam took the extra time to answer my questions and ensured that everyone understood the material,” she commends. “It certainly was a challenging course but that made me even more eager to understand the material. He did a great job at breaking down the material in a way to make it less intimidating, and he always made an effort to challenge his students.
“He also made it easy to meet with him via Zoom to help clarify further topics. Dr. Musallam made me feel like he really cared about the success of each of his students—not only in his hematology class, but also in their futures.”
Next Steps to Her Career Goal
“I am currently working as a laboratory analyst for a state-licensed cannabis lab,” Ester says. “While it is not the clinical laboratory environment I yearn to work in, my knowledge of working in a laboratory environment has grown immensely.
“At my current job, I use my knowledge from the Quantitative Analysis: Applications in Clinical Chemistry class the most. On a daily basis, I am responsible for operating and maintaining machinery, including an LC-MS, ICPMS, GC-MS, qPCR and HPLC. The quantitative analysis chemistry class through the CLS Prep Program summarized the principles of many of the machines I use daily, which has made me more confident with my tasks.”
Ester is still committed to becoming a CLS and has applied to a training program in the field.
“I have recently submitted my application for the CLS program at SF State University for Spring of 2022 and I eagerly await their response on my application.”
She recommends other students who are on a similar career-change path to register for our CLS Prep program first.
“Take the classes through the CLS Prep Program at a relaxed pace so you can fully comprehend all of the material presented. The classes offered, while at times challenging, were also very engaging and quite enjoyable. I would also suggest taking as many of the laboratory classes that coincide with the lectures as possible. My knowledge of hematology grew immensely after taking the hematology lab course, and the extra lab is what solidified my knowledge on the subject.”