Shannon Strenger was working as a surgical assistant while she attended nursing school. Her job involved taking tissue samples to the histology lab, where a pathologist prepared them for examination. "I found this process so fascinating that I eventually changed fields," says Strenger, a histotechnician at St. Joseph's Hospital, a member of the HealthEast Care System.

Preparing The Specimen

Whenever tissue such as a gall bladder, a lymph node or a tumor is removed or biopsied, the histotechnician prepares very thin sections of the specimen for microscopic examination.

This preparation involves five basic steps:

Grossing and fixation. The pathologist examines, describes and trims the specimen to the right size. Then it is placed in a chemical solution to prevent decomposition.

Processing. Water is removed from the tissue and replaced by melted paraffin wax. This allows the tissue to be cut into thin slices.

Embedding. The wax-permeated tissue is placed in a larger wax block to facilitate slicing.

Sectioning. The tissue is cut into very thin sections using a delicate instrument called a microtome and placed on a glass slide.

Staining. The tissue is treated with chemicals and dyes that cause its components to change color. This allows the pathologist to identify abnormalities.

Essential Work

Histology technicians must be detail-oriented, accurate, reliable and able to work well under pressure. Good communication skills - both written and oral - are a must. Knowledge of biology, anatomy and chemistry is also essential.

Although some aspects of histology are now automated, the work remains very hands-on. "It's a highly technical skill that can't really be automated," says Laura Hokkanen, a histotechnologist and supervisor of the histology section at St. Joseph's.

"What we do makes a huge difference in patient care," Strenger says. "Our work is essential for the correct diagnosis. And a correct diagnosis leads to the best treatment and outcome. It's satisfying to know that our work helps so many people."

Education And Outlook

Histotechnicians must complete an accredited histology program and pass a national exam. Strenger, for example, earned an associate degree from Argosy University. Histotechnologists, like Hokkanen, complete a four-year degree and can perform more complex techniques, go into management or teach.

According to the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), there is currently a shortage of histotechnologists and histotechnicians. This shortage is expected to worsen in the years ahead. "There are a lot of retirements on the horizon," Hokkanen says.

A Chance To Branch Out

Most histotechnicians work in hospitals, medical clinics and universities. But opportunities also exist in government agencies and public health facilities. In addition, histotechnicians and histotechnologists find jobs in the laboratories of firms that produce chemical, pharmaceutical, household products or medical devices. ASCP notes that jobs are also available in veterinary pathology, marine biology and forensic pathology.

"There's a lot of opportunity to branch out," Hokkanen says.

According to the ASCP Wage and Vacancy Survey, the average annual salary for histotechnicians in the United States was about $38,400 in 2005. Histotechnologists earned approximately $45,000.

Learn More

American Society for Clinical Pathology,

National Society for Histotechnology,

Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul who has written about healthcare since 1995.