Emily Fernholz

Mayo Clinic Labs @Work

Thousands of people in hundreds of different roles work at Mayo Clinic Laboratories. Mayo Clinic Labs @Work offers a glimpse behind the scenes into this busy reference laboratory, featuring staff from throughout the organization talking about what they do and why they do it.


What is your role at Mayo Clinic and how long have you been in it?

I’m a technical specialist in the Clinical Virology/Parasitology Laboratory, and I’ve worked in this lab for 16 years. I started as a bench technologist and did that for a number of years. Then I moved to the education specialist position in our lab, and now I’m a technical specialist. I’ve been in this role for about three years.


What does your typical day-to-day work involve?

In my current position, I oversee some of our molecular testing for various virus-, parasite-, and vector-borne diseases. Most of 2020 and the first part of 2021 were consumed by COVID testing here in Virology. Now that our COVID testing has shifted to more automated platforms, my focus is on our other molecular assays, as well as a large-scale automation project here in Microbiology.

Most days begin with troubleshooting instruments, assays, quality control, or specimen issues from the evening prior. This can take an hour, the entire day, or sometimes even longer. I also work on changes to current assays or development of new assays.

Lately, our tick-borne disease testing volume and positivity rate have really increased — something that is common this time of year with all of the ticks that are out there during the summer months. Sometimes, especially with those tick-borne diseases, there are unique cases that take me away from my immediate duties. That can involve making and reviewing blood films for potential vector-borne organisms that could be visualized in peripheral blood smears. Sometimes we have to submit specimens for next-generation sequencing for target specificity. I even get involved in communicating with CDC on new or unique results. These unique cases occur multiple times each summer where we have to dive a little deeper.

I also take every opportunity to get the word out about preventing tick-borne and vector-borne diseases. There are certainly ways to prevent getting some of these illnesses that we test for, and we’d rather our patients didn’t get infected with them in the first place. (See "Tips to avoid ticks" below.)


How does the work you do affect patient care?

While I’m not patient-facing, I do feel like those of us in the labs play a crucial role in patient care. In Microbiology, the testing we perform and results we report are used to help guide treatment. Some of the assays that I oversee are uniquely esoteric, and they aren’t available at most institutions. That we are able to provide testing and results for some of these unique targets is crucial for patients who just want an answer as to why they are sick, or need information to help guide their treatment for the future.

For example, while West Nile virus testing is not unique to Mayo Clinic, the PCR assay — the molecular detection of the virus itself — that we provide allows for multiple specimen types, including cerebral spinal fluid, serum specimens, whole blood specimens, and urine. Testing on urine is not widely available at other labs. But research and data show that it’s a good source for detecting the virus longer, as opposed to other sources where the viral load may drop off sooner, so the likelihood of being able to detect positivity there is a little better.


Is there anything about your work that people might find surprising?

My job is primarily rooted in our molecular assays, but with my bench tech and education background, I’m cross-trained in both virology and parasitology. That means some days I’ll be working on troubleshooting for molecular testing, and then I might turn around and get asked to give a second opinion on identification of maggots or ticks. Every day is unique in that regard because we have a wide breadth of testing across the two lab areas.


What part of your job do you find the most challenging?

This last year has really highlighted the intricate web the labs have to maintain to keep testing running smoothly. That involves everyone on the lab team, of course. But it also includes information technology, our health care technology management group, different vendors, and supply chain — that’s a whole world we’ve all become more aware of throughout this last year — and keeping everyone together can be challenging sometimes. And there’s always the daily curve balls, like quality control issues, and things hanging out on my to-do list in the midst of managing priority issues that come up, and then trying to keep in mind how all of it impacts patient care and lab workflow, as well managing my own work/life balance.


What’s the most fulfilling part of your work?

It’s rewarding to leave work after solving a problem. I like having things resolved, whether that’s a troublesome specimen, a sassy instrument, or inconsistent assay performance. It’s nice to untangle those things, and it sends me off on a high note at the end of the day. I can’t say that always happens. But when it does, it’s fulfilling. And it’s always nice know that we are providing services that are meaningful to our patients.   

Tips to avoid ticks

While the experts in Mayo’s Clinical Virology/Parasitology Laboratory are adept at identifying tick-borne and other vector-borne diseases, they would prefer you didn’t get those illnesses in the first place. Here are some tips from Emily to avoid ticks and prevent mosquito bites when you’re outside during the summer months:

  • Wear long pants and sleeves.
  • Use an insect and tick repellent with DEET or picaridin.
  • Avoid walking in tall grass.
  • Empty containers that could hold stagnant water where mosquitos breed.
  • Avoid being outside at dusk and dawn, when mosquitos are more likely to bite.
  • Perform a head-to-toe tick-check after being outside.
  • If you find a tick, remove it promptly.

You can find more information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s webpages about preventing tick bites and mosquito bites.

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Tracy Will

Tracy Will is a senior marketing specialist at Mayo Clinic Laboratories where she covers innovation, specialty testing, and advances in laboratory medicine. Tracy has worked at Mayo Clinic since 2016.