Environmental science senior learns from jobs as COVID-19 specimen processor, campus lab tech

Elmore receives hands-on lab experiences in medical sciences field
Environmental science senior and lab tech assistant Sara Elmore preparing samples for class.
Abbey Goers | February 23, 2021

Sara Elmore began her studies at UW-Stout in the Pre-B.F.A. program, seeking a degree in graphic design and interactive media. But when she wasn’t accepted into GDIM, she wondered what was next.

Elmore remembered how interested she was in the sciences in high school and decided to switch to environmental science. She didn’t know if she had what it took to be in the program, but she soon learned she didn’t need prior knowledge to succeed.

Photo of Sara Elmore
Sara Elmore / UW-Stout

“It was really reassuring to find the program is built on a growth mindset,” Elmore said. “There are several concentrations that focus on your different skills and interests. You can grow as you learn, constantly improve and find out new solutions. If you put in the work, you’re going to get there.”

Elmore, a senior from Cottage Grove in south central Wisconsin, described the major as a “hodgepodge mix of sciences – biology, chemistry, geology. Even if you don’t go into environmental work, you are still able to go into the sciences. There are so many possibilities for divergence into other careers,” she said.

Elmore is concentrating in environmental health and minoring in sustainability and chemistry. She’s interested in lowering people’s impact on the earth and monitoring human and environmental safety. She hopes to work in water quality or microbiology at an international level. 

Lab experiences during COVID-19

From June to September last summer, Elmore was hired as a contractor employee with Exact Sciences Laboratories in Madison, near her home. Exact Sciences, which develops and delivers materials for noninvasive colorectal cancer screening to medical partners, expanded its lab capabilities to support COVID-19 testing efforts.

Elmore worked as a COVID-19 specimen processor; a position that fulfilled her required internship. The data entry and scientific note-taking skills she learned in her microbiology course helped prepare her for her role. Her Infection and Immunity course also gave her background in how the body fights an infection.

 

Sara Elmore preparing samples in the campus Zoology Lab.
Sara Elmore preparing samples in the campus Zoology Lab. / UW-Stout

As a specimen processor, Elmore input patient data into Epic software and ensured patient information was correct, checking to see that specimens were labeled correctly according to corresponding paperwork. She also counted samples, made sure the vials and liquids were safe inside and that they were kept at the appropriate temperature, so samples remained viable.

“Samples came from hospitals, nursing homes and Wisconsin National Guard stations from around the state. Boxes from these facilities could have a single or hundreds of samples,” she said. “We ensured that each patient’s sample was up to the level and accurate, making sure the right patient received their results.”

Quality assurance was constantly being updated, Elmore explained. Later in the summer, specimen processors were able to scan samples electronically instead of hand-entering data into the system.

Having seen the impact of COVID-19 firsthand, she asks everyone to “please wear your masks and practice social distancing to keep people safe.”

For Elmore and many other college students at Exact Sciences, it was their first experience working in a professional, noncollege lab. Given the daunting perspective of their tasks during a pandemic and donned in full PPE, Elmore said she and the other students felt so excited during their first tour and orientation.

“It was so good seeing people in person again after being at home for so long last spring,” she said. “It felt weird but exciting to be helping in a way that’s useful. It meant a lot to us. And it opened my eyes to how many jobs there are in the medical sciences field.”

 

Sara Elmore studying algae in the campus Botany Lab.
Sara Elmore studying algae in the campus Botany Lab. / UW-Stout

Elmore has a passion for travel and studied abroad in Greece. She is a lab tech assistant at UW-Stout’s Botany Lab and Zoology Lab, where she helps prepare labs for classes, troubleshoots and develops lab improvements, said environmental science Program Director Mandy Little. “On top of that, Sara has a great sense of humor. We will certainly miss her when she graduates.”

Caring for our planet and each other

As vital as environmental science is to keep people and the planet safe, Elmore believes that, ideally, it wouldn’t be as important of a field as it is.

“When making any decision, people should have consideration for how it can affect the environment.  That moving forward, we put the environment into consideration when we build, buy or plan anything,” she said.

“But that is not the world we currently live in. We need to track the generation and disposal of hazardous waste to prevent human and environmental harm. That often affects people of color and low-income communities more frequently.

Environmental science Program Director Mandy Little
Environmental science Program Director Mandy Little / UW-Stout

“Ideally, if we were all environmentally conscious and thinking further on, we wouldn’t need to keep companies in check, track hazardous waste or invasive species. There would be no unsafe water, pollution or chemicals poisoning whole cities,” Elmore said. “We wouldn’t need due diligence to make sure people are not harming the environment and also not being harmed themselves.”

Along with the environmental science major, UW-Stout offers a minor in environmental health and a master’s in sustainable management. The university’s Sustainability Office works to educate students, faculty and staff about issues and to implement campuswide initiatives.

The university’s Career Services Cooperative Education and Internship Program partners with roughly 600 companies to support applied learning experiences for more than 1,000 students enrolled annually. CEIP helps strengthen collaborations between employers, faculty, students and Career Services by leading to career opportunities for graduates and identifying potential talent for hiring needs.


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