Before 2020, few people knew what PCR tests were. But after more than two years of living through a pandemic, these kinds of terms are part of our everyday conversation. That’s put the work of a molecular laboratory professional like Dean Maxwell in the spotlight.
A 1997 graduate of Michener’s Medical Laboratory Science program, Dean leads the COVID-19 team and all other viral genetic testing as Laboratory Manager for Public Health Ontario.
“I started my current role in Feb 2020 – just as the pandemic was beginning,” says Dean. “At first we had a team of 20, and in six months it grew to a team of 200 dedicated lab professionals.”
Dean and his team conduct molecular testing for COVID-19 plus other types of pathogens such as Monkeypox, Adenovirus and Enterovirus by looking for mutations in DNA or RNA. Dean’s main role is to oversee and support the staff who conduct the testing and ensure that the labs continue to meet the quality standards established by the laboratory sector.
From December to February 2021, the lab team’s busiest time in the pandemic, they were processing up to 25,000 COVID-19 samples in one day. In total, the team has processed five million diagnostic tests for COVID-19.
“I haven’t slept in two years,” says Dean with a laugh. “I’m on call 24-7, so it’s been challenging. But the pandemic has propelled what lab technologists are doing. We’re normally behind the scenes, and we don’t always get this kind of recognition.”
Aside from COVID-19 and Monkeypox, Dean and his team test for many viruses and respond to different kinds of outbreaks regularly. From the flu to measles and mumps, they test for anything that’s emerging and act quickly with the lab response.
“As a manager, I face a lot of demands from many people, but we need to ensure that what’s coming out of the lab is more than just quantity of results – it has to be excellent quality as well,” says Dean.
After completing Michener’s Med Lab program, Dean worked in various labs in the hospital sector before transitioning to the genetics field. He says that the program at Michener helped him transfer his skills to genetics, and he eventually completed extra courses in Michener’s Genetics program.
These courses combined with his work experience helped him become licensed as a general MLT and Genetics MLT with the College of Medical Laboratory Technologists of Ontario.
“Not many people have a general lab, human genetics and microbial genetics background,” says Dean. “We’re highly valued if we have a genetics background in this current environment.”
Dean knows that his unique professional experience plus balancing high demands on the job started with his Michener education: “Michener has been so valuable for me over the years. Going through that program helped me prepare right at the beginning of my career. I wouldn’t be able to lead my team today without all the collaboration in my program.”