TMCC Alumni Becomes A Clinical Researcher - News - Truckee Meadows Community College

TMCC Alumni Becomes A Clinical Researcher

Annie Beach-Hills sits outdoors with her dogs.
Rebecca A. Eckland

Annie Beach-Hills enrolled in the Phlebotomy and Clinical Laboratory Specialist (CLS) program in Fall 2020. Beach-Hills, who had always wanted to pursue a career in the medical field, wasn’t sure how to get started. “I always kind of wanted to go into nursing, but at the same time I wasn’t sure I could handle dealing with blood,” she said. 

Not quite knowing where to begin, she remembered looking through the TMCC course catalog when she came across the CLS Program, which is designed to give students knowledge and skills to collect, identify and preserve blood specimens. The program results in the completion of a Skills Certificate in Phlebotomy. In other words, it was a program that would enable Beach-Hills to specialize in the very aspect of the medical profession she wasn’t so sure she could handle. 

“I guess the only way to find out if I could deal with it was to jump right in,” she said. And that’s exactly what she did. “It was interesting and nerve-wracking because I’ve never stuck a needle in anyone before. But, I really, really enjoyed the program.” 

After completing the program, Beach-Hills was hired at Renown as a Patient-Access Representative (PAR). It was a position she’d have to hold for a year before transferring to work in the lab, which is what she really wanted to do. And then, seemingly out of the blue, the unexpected happened: Merlita Mateo, an instructor from TMCC’s CLS program, reached out to Beach-Hills with the news with an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. 

“The reason I found out about the position was that Merlita—who is a saint—called me randomly one day and asked if I was still working in the pediatric specialty at Renown Hospital? And I told her yes, and she said that she heard of a position at UNR that would be a perfect fit for me,” Beach-Hills remembered. 

She took her former instructor’s advice and applied for the position. The position required that applicants had Phlebotomy experience, which Beach-Hills certainly had, but she nonetheless did not feel qualified. 

“The interview went really smoothly, but I remember I called Merlita and told her that I just didn’t feel qualified for the position,” she said. Yet, it turned out she was qualified, and one year after completing TMCC’s CLS Program, Beach-Hills became a Pediatric Research Coordinator at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Clinical Research Center.

More specifically, Beach-Hills is completing clinical research that seeks to develop an early screening to detect juvenile diabetes. Although the clinical trials won’t start until January 2022, Beach-Hills finds herself in the laboratory and research role that she always wanted to be. “I didn’t really search for this position per se. It just fell into my lap,” she said.

Clinical Research Opportunities for CLS Program Completers

Danielle Eaton is a Senior Director and Research Manager at the UNR School of Medicine’s Clinical Research Center as well as the Executive Director for the Sierra Veterans Research Education Foundation, and works directly with Beach-Hills whose position isn’t a common one in our community. “Being a clinical research coordinator isn’t a common job in this area. You typically find these kinds of jobs in larger cities like Boston or San Francisco, where there is a lot more clinical research going on,” she explained. 

However, in the past six years, the UNR School of Medicine has been able to build an infrastructure and a partnership with Renown to support medical research...and for graduates of CLS programs like Beach-Hills, positions that utilize her unique skill set. “Right now, we’re in a unique position to be able to hire people who have the clinical and lab skills that are required...once we hire them, we can train them on the individual components of a particular project, and that’s what makes them a research coordinator,” Eaton explained. 

Students who complete phlebotomy and medical assisting programs are trained in the skills that clinical research labs need. “These students have that baseline skill set: they know how to draw blood and work in a hospital or clinical setting. They also understand the operations piece, and how the workflow happens in that kind of environment. That means they can take any given protocol for a particular study and effectively operationalize that,” she said. 

The idea to hire graduates of these kinds of programs came from a fellow research coordinator at Renown who told Eaton about the difficulties that those graduates face when trying to advance in the medical field. “If the CLS certification is all you have, there really isn’t a lot of upward mobility, and that can be a challenge,” she said. However, by going into lab and clinical research, there are opportunities for CLS graduates to advance. 

“When we bring these graduates in as research associates initially, we’re able to give them the on-the-job training they need to pass a certification exam that then qualifies them to be a clinical research coordinator, which is a very valuable position that they can then take with them to basically any clinical research lab,” she said. While the experience and certification grants these job candidates mobility, Eaton explained that there are several opportunities to learn and grow right here in Reno. 

“Through the affiliation with the research office, we want to be a destination for these novice clinical research coordinators who can implement these novel care protocols. So, that is what we are building toward… to make a positive impact in this space and these graduates that have these skills definitely fill that niche.” 

Alternative Pathways to Advance in the Medical Profession

Eaton explained that there are opportunities in several different studies, including in oncology, pulmonology, cardiology and neurology, with more programs scheduled to come online in the near future. These opportunities could provide alternate career pathways in the medical field that go beyond bedside care offered by nursing staff. “Being a clinical research coordinator can provide another avenue for students who might not get into a competitive nursing program. It creates a way for them to get the science piece of it, which they like because they are seeking to be in an allied health profession, but it also allows them to use what is arguably the soft skills they already have,” Eaton said, who knows this firsthand because this was the pathway she took to her current position. 

“I didn’t get into TMCC’s Nursing Program, and at the time I wondered what I was going to do,” she said. Eaton continued her education and, just like Beach-Hills, an opportunity to become a Clinical Research Coordinator simply appeared. “It’s really a unique space to be in and to be able to provide clinical care, but also to contribute to a larger body of science. That’s just so exciting.” 

For students like Beach-Hills who are interested in the mission of providing novel care to patients and to potential research subjects, and who are interested in scientific discovery, Eaton said that this career path offers the opportunity of a lifetime. “Do you wonder how we get new drugs or how new treatments come to market? This role is integral to that. It’s a great way to contribute to something bigger. I mean… I would encourage students not to think of it as ‘just a Phlebotomy Certificate.’ It can be so much more.” 

For Beach-Hills, the opportunity is enabling her to pursue her passions while gaining skills to advance in the medical profession. And yet, it’s a career she can see herself doing for the foreseeable future. “It’s something I’m interested in and that I want to stick with—it’s medical innovation, and the work we do could change the face of medicine,” she said.

Eaton encourages interested graduates to contact her at the UNR School of Medicine Clinical Research Center if they are interested in learning more about positions that are currently available. 

For students still searching for their particular niche in the medical profession, learning more about TMCC’s CLS Program could be a great first step in your journey to help others and contribute to the growing body of medical knowledge. For more information, contact TMCC’s CLS Program at 775-824-8640.