Celebrating Medical Laboratory Professionals Week
April 28, 2023 Written by Amy Cherry | Photos by Ashley Barnas and submitted by Jacinta Hollinger
Jacinta Hollinger, CHS, Class of 2010
From a young age, Jacinta (Gracias) Hollinger aspired to be a physician.
“That was always the trajectory I saw myself on,” she said.
At 17, graduating from high school and being a first-generation college student at the University of Delaware, she was unaware of other less obvious roles within the healthcare system.
“I wish there were more career fairs because it’s important to educate people at a young age about various pathways,” she said. “At 17, it’s hard to decide what you want to do with your life. Had someone come in and talked to us about what a medical laboratory scientist was and what a physician assistant does, that would have been very beneficial.”
She enrolled as an Honors biological sciences major at UD and realized the curriculum wasn’t a great fit. She ultimately transferred to the UD College of Health Sciences and became a medical laboratory science (MLS) major. She didn’t learn about a career as a physician assistant (PA) until a health fair at UD. She kept that knowledge in her back pocket while still planning to go to medical school.
In 2010, she graduated from UD with an honors bachelor’s degree in medical technology and planned to take a gap year before medical school.
“It was worth it for me to take the gap years,” she said. “Those years really helped me grow as an individual and helped me learn more responsibility and accountability that really shaped me as a person.”
During this time, she worked as a microbiologist at Nemours Children’s Hospital, where she also conducted research.
“I loved every aspect of it,” she said. “Growing up I thought I wanted to be a pediatrician, so it was wonderful to work in that setting, and I did a lot of volunteering in the emergency room there as well.”
One gap year quickly turned into two, and the loss of a family member made her rethink priorities.
“I realized eight years of additional schooling was not something I was willing to sacrifice,” she said. “I wanted a career that offered me a better work/life balance.”
The Physician Assistant (PA) program at Arcadia University’s Delaware Campus was the perfect fit. It offered her flexibility and the ability to help others with less schooling and less debt. Hollinger said her MLS degree from UD prepared her in every possible way for this next chapter.
“The transition was smooth. You develop really good study habits and tactics, and you learn to absorb a lot of the information,” she said. “Going to PA school is like drinking from a fire hydrant, but I was able to incorporate the knowledge that I had as a medical laboratory scientist into PA school. I already knew the laboratory tests; I knew reference ranges, so I felt very well prepared.”
She added an understanding of the inner workings of the laboratory from how assays are performed to how those test results lead to diagnoses was vital.
“Realizing how the clinician gets the results, interprets them, and formulates a diagnosis for a patient really helped me with my critical thinking,” Hollinger said. “Being on both sides of that process has shaped me as a clinician.”
She graduated from Arcadia’s PA program in 2016 and began working in private practice in infectious diseases. She remained affiliated with Christiana Hospital, precepting for PA students and facilitating medical grand rounds in infectious disease.
“I really enjoy it, and it incorporates my background in microbiology and antibiotics,” she said.
Hollinger had met her husband, who’s also a UD alumnus with a bachelor’s in MLS, working in the lab at Nemours; they’re now part of the special Double Dels Club. As they began to have a family, COVID hit, and priorities changed.
“We were bombarded with COVID cases in the hospital, and it just became really difficult to sustain. I lost sense of that work/life balance,” she said. “Medical laboratory professionals were the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic because we’re helping clinicians and patients in a major way, but you never see us; it’s a really humbling job.”
Her time at Christiana made her realize how much she loved teaching, and that a career of that kind could give her the flexibility she was seeking to spend time with her husband and children, ages 4 and 1. In January of 2023, Hollinger accepted an appointment as an assistant professor in the Physician Assistant Program at her alma mater, Arcadia.
“I still practice clinically as well, so it’s a really great balance for me,” she said.
Hollinger admitted the medical laboratory science field continues to suffer from a major shortage that started before COVID. The lack of pay for the profession exacerbates that shortage. While at UD, as part of her honors curriculum, she advocated for increased pay for medical laboratory scientists.
“We’re simply not paid appropriately for the work we do,” she said. “I met with Senator Tom Carper in the U.S. Senate and pushed for better reimbursement rates for tests so we could increase pay scales.”
But despite those challenges, it’s a rewarding career. Hollinger tells current MLS majors at UD that their work behind the scenes in the lab matters.
“It may be a humbling job, but you’re doing such important work, so stick with it,” she said. “The MLS background is beneficial for anyone working in a laboratory setting who realizes they want to transition to a different career path later in life. It is never too late to continue furthering your education. We all get to our destination; we just take different paths.”