If there was any good that came out of the pandemic, we’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the work that healthcare workers commit to doing day after day. As we learn more about what they face at work in the hospitals or clinics, we often overlook the fact that there’s more to them than just a masked face; and this series is a celebration of their hopes and dreams beyond the scrubs.
In the second part of our series, we met with Sarah, a medical technologist and one half of the husband-and-wife team who founded Terra & Ember, a pottery studio. It was a rainy afternoon when we made a short trek from our office to the busy streets of Geylang. Here, a traditional Buddhist temple—run by the family of Alan, Sarah’s husband—is home to an unexpectedly cosy, Japanese-styled pottery studio on the second floor, bright with natural light.
Sarah describes her day job as a medical technologist as the “missing link” between doctors and patients, administering various tests and procedures to determine which antibiotics are effective against different microbes. Although medical technologists play an indispensable role in the treatment of patients, most of us aren’t aware of the work that they quietly, industriously do, in laboratories tucked away in hospitals.
We speak to Sarah to find out more about her daily life in the laboratory, her work at Terra & Ember, and her dreams for the near future.
What does a medical technologist do?
We mainly support the clinical services of the hospital. Our department is called Laboratory Medicine and there are a few different sections in it. I’m in the microbiology section—where we specialise in identifying microbes in samples. Our job is grow these microbes in environments that simulate the human body, and then test to see which antibiotics are harmful to them. Those antibiotics will be the ones that we’d recommend to doctors. As the growing of microbes and testing them can take more than five days, patients and their family members who aren’t aware of this might have a misconception that our services are not efficient.
How did you become a medical technologist? Was it something that you always wanted to do?
I didn’t think that I’d go down the path of a medical technologist. I graduated with a degree in Biomedical Science from Nanyang Technological University—it’s a very generic degree for those who are interested in life sciences. My current job is my first and I didn’t expect to stay in it for so long—I’ve been here for five years! I initially saw the job as just a way for me to have a feel of work life. Before the pandemic, the job could get a little mundane. However, I find satisfaction in knowing that my work and findings are helping people, especially when I read up on the patient’s history and try to find ways to help facilitate a better diagnosis for them. I’m sure that others in the healthcare industry feel the same way. Knowing that I play an important part in the patient’s road to recovery really makes me feel that there’s a value to what I do!
Do you feel like your perception of your work, and additionally, other people’s perception of you/your work, has changed compared to pre-Covid days?
The media doesn’t usually shine the spotlight on medical technologists. They tend to feature doctors, nurses—those who are the ‘face’ of the hospital. There is a better appreciation for the healthcare industry and frontliners but I would say that the role of a medical technologist is quite overlooked. We don’t get a lot of exposure and many people don’t know about us. Visitors to the hospital they don’t typically see us in our lab coats as our laboratory is located in the basement, but we’re still a vital part of the hospital as we support the doctors by providing them information so that they can prescribe the right medication to patients.
Are there certain misconceptions or misunderstandings about your job that you wish to dispel?
People always perceive the hospital as being a “dirty” place and that medical professionals are germ carriers. Our lab is actually really clean, probably even more so than most workspaces—we clean our surfaces about ten times a day and wash our hands about 20 times a day. For the past one and a half years, nobody has fallen sick in my team, even with just a regular cold, because we’ve been so clean!
How would you sum up the past one and a half years?
Over the past one and a half years, I’ve realised that my colleagues and I depend on each other more as this pandemic has highlighted the importance of every member’s role in the team. We’ve become more united as well and the camaraderie in my office is now stronger. There are some days when we are overwhelmed with work but going through it with our colleagues makes it easier. I was quite surprised that our team got closer as most would think that these tough times and restriction of social interaction would pull us further apart.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve met over this time?
The most obvious one would be facing the unknowns of Covid, especially at the start. There was not much research then and we didn’t know how infectious it would be. Yet, as healthcare professionals, we don’t have the time to wait for more research. We just have to do our job and face the unknown—if not, more will die. This is the first pandemic that I’m experiencing as a healthcare professional and I didn’t know what to expect. As I live with elderly, I was also afraid to bring the virus home.
Do you feel that your work as a medical technologist influences your pottery?
Maybe not in the aspect of creating pottery, but more on my skills in customer service. Technically, medical technologists are considered to be in-house service providers who serve doctors and nurses in the hospital. Service skills that I’ve learnt on the job—such as knowing how to manage expectations and customers’ emotions—are crucial for running Terra & Ember as well.
How did you become interested in pottery in the first place? What did you like about it?
It started as a hobby before it became a real business. When we first went for a trial workshop, there was no option for attending mini pottery workshops in Singapore then. I believe that Terra and Ember was one of the first few studios that brought mini pottery to Singapore in 2019 when we first started. It was an idea that Alan came up with—he was probably inspired when he saw mini pottery from studios overseas. I like mini pottery because you can get instant results and it’s very easy to experiment with, and if you make mistakes, it’s easy to amend. It’s not as challenging as the big ones. You can colour and make all kinds of shapes on the spot, unlike the big ones, where you have to go through the process of drying, trimming and glazing—which can take a couple of weeks!
Down the road, do you see yourself choosing to focus on your medical work, or pottery? Why or why not?
If the pottery business takes off and does very well, there’s always a possibility that I’ll choose to focus on it full-time and help Alan out. Nonetheless, I do enjoy the work that I’m doing as a medical technologist. I enjoy being independent from Terra & Ember—not saying that I don’t want to be here, but it’s good to have something to work on aside from pottery as well. I like having the best of both worlds.
Is there something that you’ve learnt from pottery or something that pottery taught you?
Something that I’ve learnt from pottery is that you can’t rush the process. You just have to let the clay be—the more you push it, the more it will resist you. I think that principle can be applied anywhere and it’s a very important lesson that we can all learn.
Apart from teaching mini pottery classes, we hear you also handle the marketing, finance, and admin side of the business. Was this something you had prior experience in, before Terra & Ember?
I didn’t have any prior experience—everything was self-taught! I never went for any official course or class as well. It was a challenge, but I simply read up online, learnt from other small business owners and adapted what I’ve learnt to Terra & Ember’s needs.
Something that you’re personally trying to be better at:
I guess being a little more tolerant in running the pottery studio and also in my job as a medical technologist. At the pottery studio, sometimes you meet difficult students—it’s all part and parcel of the business. There are times when students bring forth negative energy to the studio and it’s challenging to handle that. I try to put myself in their shoes and remind myself that these students may be facing some problems at home. Similarly, in my position as a medical technologist, I receive many enquiries on the phone. When I’m busy with work, it can be quite frustrating to have to divert my attention to pick up the calls. I try to be more tolerant as I know that I’m ultimately providing a service to the doctors and nurses.
Do you have goals or hopes for the near or distant future?
I hope we can travel again as that has always been a big part of our pottery journey! We like to participate in workshops from other studios. We’ve been to Japan and even to a local pottery studio in Jeju Island in South Korea—it was such a traditional and authentic experience. It’s very interesting as their teaching methods are very relevant to their culture. We’ve adapted some of their methods in our studio.