In January, the College of Health Professions at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center began offering one of 12 master’s degree programs for pathologists’ assistants in the country. It was a years-long effort for the college, and it came at the perfect time for student Jasmine Becton, a Memphis native.
“There were no programs nearby, and I didn’t want to move because it wasn’t cost-efficient,” Becton said. “I found out a pathologists’ assistant program was starting here, and I was like, ‘as soon as the application goes up, I’m applying.’”
The mission of the Pathologists’ Assistant Program is to train highly skilled, entry-level pathologists’ assistants who are prepared to assume positions in the gross room and autopsy suite, including laboratory management, research, and education. The college worked diligently to develop the program, beginning in 2018 and receiving final approval from Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) in July 2022.
The program aims to prepare students like Becton for the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) board of certification exam and awards them with a degree of Master of Health Science (MHS) in Pathologists’ Assistant.
After completing her bachelor’s degree in biology from Mississippi University for Women, Becton received her Medical Laboratory Science certification. She developed an interest in anatomical science while working in a lab at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital for several years. “Currently, I work on the clinical pathology side, but I got to shadow an autopsy and I was hooked,” Becton said.
Becoming a pathologists’ assistant, Becton said, would allow her to pursue both her lifelong interest in science and her newfound appreciation for interacting directly with the parts of the human body. “I’m used to seeing different lab results, and that’s it. Actually being able to touch the organs, look at them grossly, and dissect them is very interesting to me,” she said.
The more Becton learns about being a pathologists’ assistant, the more she seems to like it. One thing she enjoys is that every day is different, she said. “You might get the same type of specimens, but every case and patient are different. It’s like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get.”
She also appreciates the difference she will be able to make through her future career. “Pathologists’ assistants perform autopsies that give families the closure they need about their loved ones. They perform duties such as grossing, which is vital in cancer diagnosis and treatment. The many duties that PAs perform allow the pathologist to focus on other duties, which speeds up the time it takes for a patient to receive a diagnosis and start treatment,” she said.
“Most people think you have to have patient contact to have an impact on patients and their care, but you don’t.”Jasmine Becton
Since joining in the College of Health Professions’ inaugural pathologists’ assistant class, Becton has nothing but positive reviews. Not only are the classes meeting the standard, but Becton said the professors are going beyond her expectations to provide her and her classmates with the best education possible.
“It’s very rigorous, it’s time-consuming, but I love it,” she said. “Professor Michael Weitzeil, the program director, and Professor Samantha Etters, the clinical director, are wonderful. They’re very encouraging and they’re great teachers. They explain things in a way that we get, and even if we don’t get it on the first try, they’ve given us their contact information, so we can contact them with any questions we’re struggling with. They just have open arms.”
The Department of Diagnostic Health and Sciences in the College of Health Professions hired Weitzeil in 2021 to help develop the program and guide it through the THEC approval process. Before joining UTHSC, he spent six years as the clinical coordinator in the pathologists’ assistant program at Loma Linda University in California. There he taught courses, worked clinically, and assisted the program through its National Accreditation Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) accreditation, something UTHSC’s pathologists’ assistant program is currently seeking.
As an instructor, Weitzeil aims to engage and sharpen his students’ critical thinking skills to help them apply what they learn in the classroom to their practice in the lab. In describing his personal teaching philosophy, Weitzeil said, “Often, the challenge that awaits preemptive students is not the amount of didactic material to learn or the fast pace at which it is introduced, but the transition from theory to practice. It is easy to memorize the different segments of colon and the diseases that affect them but being able to critically think one’s way through the gross dissection of those tissues requires very specific psychomotor skills, mentorship, critical thinking, and knowledge.
“It is my goal in everything I do to set the standard of using independent critical thinking to work through a complex question and arrive at an evidence-based conclusion,” he said. “This learned skill makes for an excellent pathologists’ assistant, and I hope to instill it in (the students) in our classroom and laboratory interactions.”
In addition to the dedication from her instructors, Becton said her experience is made better by the program’s five other students, describing the class as a family who are learning together. “We all have things in common. There aren’t that many people you can discuss autopsies and those types of things with, and know that they understand you,” she said.
After completing the two-year program, Becton hopes to remain at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, taking a position as a pathologists’ assistant. Her goal is to become a vital member of a laboratory team who plays an integral role in ensuring the highest quality of patient treatment and care. Eventually, she hopes to enter higher education and teach the pathologists’ assistants of the future.
“Teaching the next generation of pathologists’ assistants to become experts in the field and mentoring them will be a way I can give back,” she said. “I want to cultivate highly skilled individuals with the ability to critically assess and believe in their own capacity to make positive contributions to patient care.”
This story was initially published in the Spring 2023 issue of Health Professions Magazine.