Health & Biomedical

Dr. Abba Zubair, MD, PhD

Clinical Pathologist at Mayo Clinic

Space Dreams & Stem Cells: Biomedical advances at Mayo Clinic

Dr. Abba Zubair, MD, PhD is a Clinical Pathologist specializing in Transfusion Medicine and stem cell research at Mayo Clinic. Dr. Zubair grew up in Nigeria, Africa fascinated by the dream of being an astronaut. A student advisor told him that he was smart and could do anything, but to pick something else. After all, Nigeria wasn’t sending rockets into the air.

Events in Dr. Zubair’s young life prompted a shift from becoming an astronaut into an interest in healthcare. He chose to be a doctor and began his studies in England. As a student, Dr. Zubair got a green card through the lottery system and pursued his education in the United States. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, he studied tumor immunology, pathology and laboratory medicine, and transfusion medicine. He worked at Brigham & Women, Dana Farber Cancer Center and Boston Children’s Hospital while at Harvard before moving to Jacksonville.

Despite Dr. Zubair’s numerous research activities, publications, professional memberships and various lectureships and awards, interacting with high school and college students through programs and mentorship is extremely satisfying. “It’s exciting to talk to new generations and encourage them to open their eyes and see that the sky’s the limit.”

Recently, Dr. Zubair’s research has launched into space. Collaborating with the Florida Program Research in Space and the ISS National Laboratory Center for Advancement of Science in Space, he submitted a grant to test a basic research idea and translate it to patient care. The premise: studying cell behavior in space may lead to new therapies to treat stroke patients, specifically those with hemorrhagic stroke. From a research perspective, it takes months to grow cells. So, what is the effect of zero gravity on the growth of stem cells? Would cells grow faster and be safe to use for human application?

“Space research is totally different,” Dr. Zubair indicated. “Simple activities must be re-engineered and tested for effectiveness. One rocket carries everything, from food to military hardware and research materials—you are competing with others who want to be on the shuttle at Kennedy Space Center. It may take months to years to get your project up to the top of the queue. You use astronauts to conduct your research project, some of whom need training.”

In space, cells are grown, fed, and harvested. Photos of cells were taken and shared in real time to study behavior. Dr. Zubair’s team has an exact replica of the space study in the Mayo lab as a control. Staff go to the lab at night to feed the cells at the same time to mirror the feeding times of cells in space.

Many space samples have returned via a capsule that lands by balloon into the ocean. It’s retrieved out of the ocean and Fed Ex’ed to the Mayo lab. Dr. Zubair stated that the real action starts when sample comes back and is compared to lab grown cells.

Dr. Zubair’s team is organizing space data and synthesizing findings. Of the more than fifteen thousands genes analyzed, up to seven thousand were impacted by being in space. The evaluations showed short-term exposure to radiation in space did not cause significant cell damage or cause them to become cancerous. Out of the three types of cells studied, one
type showed enhanced immune suppressive property which suggests it can be used in preventing rejection of organs and controlling inflammation. Dr. Zubair said he and this team will need to re-test this study in space before drawing conclusions. This process will take time—years in fact—before patients can be treated with space-grown cells.

Dr. Zubair has lived in Jacksonville for 17 years. He emphasized that Florida is an ideal location to pursue a biomedical career involving space research, due to Mayo’s proximity to the Kennedy Center. Of pursuing the biomedical field, he stresses, “Never waste time. Get all of the credentials you need quickly. Education is like a marathon. There will be a struggle, so you can’t focus on the immediate. There is joy in the journey. Go where the opportunities are that excite you. It may look painful going to class and taking exams, but when you achieve your goal, you’ll appreciate it.”

Wanting a life that looked more like an action movie, with frequent plot twists and turns, Dr. Zubair has found joy in biomedicine. He proves that realizing your dreams may not take the shape you initially intended. Dr. Zubair hasn’t set foot in space, but his work has travelled there and back.

For more, watch the video at

Brad Nazworth

BSN, RN at Baptist Health

Driven to Nursing – How Life Experiences Shape a Career

Life experiences can shape a career pathway and guide decisions in your life. After working in the insurance industry and as an animal control officer, Brad Nazworth, BSN, RN, was inspired by his time caring for a loved one with a serious illness to explore a career path in nursing.

“As I was caring for my father-in-law, who was critically ill, I discovered I had an aptitude for helping him though that process,” Nazworth said. “Taking care of him motivated me to go back to school and pursue a career in nursing.”

Nazworth is a critical care nurse in the Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit (MSICU) at Baptist Health. The 20-bed unit is accountable for providing care to critical patients that require a higher acuity of care.

There are many ways to enter into a nursing career. Nazworth attended the University of North Florida (UNF) and graduated with his Bachelor of Science degree in nursing (BSN) from the Brooks School of Nursing at UNF. The school offers a wide variety of nursing programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and provides students with clinical experiences prior to graduation.

“I highly recommend UNF’s School of Nursing,” Nazworth said. “The faculty is extremely supportive and has provided helpful connections in my career.”

Nazworth joined Baptist Health in 2014 as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) and worked in several different departments within the hospital. He discovered his passion for patient care while working in the ICU.

“I am proud to be an ICU nurse and I would not want to work anywhere else,” Nazworth said.

After graduating with his registered nurse (RN) license, Nazworth was hired to work as a critical care nurse in the MSICU. Critical care nurses perform patient assessments, administer treatment and provide support during recovery. They interact with physicians and other departments within the hospital and they educate patients and their families about patients’ illness and plan of care.

“While the patient is the priority, their family also becomes an important part of your patient’s care,” Nazworth said.

The unit has been nationally recognized with awards including the Daisy Award, honoring the teamwork, collaboration and compassionate care nurses provide for their patients and families. Nazworth says working in the ICU is intensely challenging and extremely rewarding.

“Our unit’s physicians, nurses and other staff work together as a team to support each other and provide the highest level of care to our patients,” Nazworth said. “The ICU provides the opportunity for me to have an impact on a patient’s care every day, and that’s a big deal to me.”

Nazworth is passionate about advancing the nursing profession. He serves on Baptist Health’s clinical informatics committee, which is working to combine traditional bedside nursing skills with advanced healthcare information technology. Nazworth teaches continuing education classes on continuous renal replacement therapy (CRRT), commonly used to provide renal support for critically ill patients with acute kidney injury. He also stays connected with UNF, offering guidance and support to students enrolled in the nursing school program.

“Anyone can learn but you have to have the drive, personality and desire if you want to achieve a career in nursing,” Nazworth said.

Stacey Prince

Senior Specialist for Release of Information at Mayo Clinic

Pivoting Toward Your Passion

Stacey Prince loves being part of the healthcare field. Her role as a Senior Specialist for Release of Information at Mayo Clinic allows her to work at the intersection of laws and technology as they apply to the medical field. She sees opportunities for continued growth in an evolving industry that offers her some patient interaction and a lot of opportunity to flex her critical thinking muscles.

Stacey graduated from St. Johns River State College nearly two years ago with her AS degree in Health Information Technology. After a career in the finance industry, she stepped away to care for her children. When considering re-entry into the workforce Stacey carefully evaluated her options. She monitored employment trends and looked at the political landscape. The Affordable Care Act helped prompt her to pursue additional post-secondary education. She states, “I saw (healthcare) as a growing industry with a lot of opportunity for me to foster a brand new career.”

In her role at Mayo, she used transferable skills from finance and applies them to the non-clinical side of healthcare. However, she cites the training received at SJR State as fundamental to her everyday work. Understanding and retaining legal vocabulary and standards learned there has been critical, as her work involves adherence to public health-related guidelines like HIPAA.

Job satisfaction is clear as Stacey describes what she likes about the industry. In under two years at Mayo, her current role has evolved. She has been part of two new system roll-outs. She likes the urgency of finding resolutions for uses that impact patients in a dynamic environment. She enjoys applying her knowledge to make decisions. She sees the potential for continued change as the ways in which information I shared changes. Stacey realizes that new jobs will emerge because of changing technology, and “we (the industry) will be able to shape that change.”

Stacey has been part of the pivotal and efficient mobilization of resources that has accompanied COVID-19. Her role has increased in depth, which will help her be even more valuable. When asked how she would encourage someone when considering a role on the business side of healthcare, Stacey said taking an entry-level class in Allied Health confirmed her passion. It reinforced her interest that she was headed in the right direction. She also believes that the business side of healthcare is “broader than you think. It’s bigger than medical coding. It allows you to land inside the scope of medical records but no two situations are the same.”

Now that she is an SJR State alum, Stacey also enjoys having great mentorships from professors and administrators she met at the college. They continue providing guidance and her direction and serve as a support system as her role grows and changes. She’s also involved in professional organizations, as she finds it helpful to surround herself with other professionals who are committed to the work.

Stacey is looking forward to a long and fulfilling career in health information management. “I picked an industry that I had not ever considered before. It turns out that this is the field that ignites my passion and imagination. It’s a reminder that your passion can find you in unexpected places, and I am grateful that mine has found me.”

The business side of health needs processionals with a passion like Stacey’s. If you seek a career pathway that will offer constant growth and change, consider Health Information Technology.

Sarah Elam

Cytoprep Lab Technician at Aurora Diagnostics/Bernhardt Laboratories

From Retail to Biomedicine

"This isn't a field for someone who wants instant gratification, " says Sarah Elam, a Cytoprep Lab Technician with Aurora Diagnostics/Bernhardt Laboratories.

Sarah grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas. At 19, she obtained a position as a medical receptionist for a clinic specializing in cardiology that housed seven cardiologists including two electrophysiologists. This change from working in her family's retail store allowed her to help people in a new way and sparked her interest in clinical medicine.

Sarah obtained EKG and Phlebotomy certifications while continuing to work in Medical Scribing, which helped solidify her ultimate goal of being a physician. By transcribing everything a doctor says and does, she applied what she learned about medical terminology from her receptionist role.

When looking at additional educational pursuits, Sarah was drawn to Keiser University's Jacksonville campus for the Biomedical Science program. The program outline worked with her schedule. Its accelerated approach provided rigorous but manageable coursework allowing students to focus on one subject at a time in a small classroom environment. Sarah notes, "Biomedicine is an emerging field. Taking courses such as Biology of Cancer and Genetics were interesting and necessary. This degree can lead to pre-med or allow a person to branch off into so many aspects, like research, physician's assistant, and anesthesiology."

After graduating from Keiser University with a BS in Biomedical Science in 2019, Sarah chose to continue her education at the University of Florida to obtain her Master of Science in Microbiology and Biochemistry. Ultimately, Sarah hopes this degree will give her an edge when applying for and succeeding in medical school. Her ideal choice for medical school is Jacksonville's Mayo Clinic. Regarding the discipline involved in pursuing one's education, Sarah states, "Do not procrastinate. Find a good support group that you can rely on to keep you accountable whether it be a professor, a family member, or friends."

While pursuing her studies, Sarah works a night shift at Aurora Diagnostics/Bernhardt laboratories. Her lab technician role involves preparing and staining slides containing women's health samples for microscopic evaluation. These results allow physicians to diagnose patients. Sarah also maintains quality control of the stains, reagents, and instruments used while processing specimens.

Successful lab technicians are self-starters who can prioritize and think critically about steps or processes to follow, according to Sarah. She indicates that a tech needs to be able to think about an entire workflow plan to complete processing of samples, which range from 200-800 daily.

Sarah's career course has evolved over time, as well as her reasons for being so passionate about the field. She says, "Initially, I wanted to learn and help people. That's still true, but it goes deeper than that. Pursuing healthcare has enabled me to experience a vast amount of personal growth that I could not fathom in any other field. I do not see this as a job, but as a lifestyle."

Opthalmic Technician Program

Having Vision—Seeing an Amazing Career Path

According to the FSCJ website, the role of the Ophthalmic Technician is to “manage ocular diseases and optical measurements.” Technicians help doctors treat eye diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration, as well as fit patients for contact lenses and glasses.

Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ) offers an Ophthalmic Technician Associate of Science degree, one of only 12 such programs in the nation. This program is accredited by the International Council of Accreditation for Allied Ophthalmic Education Programs (ICA). Recent high school graduates, career changers, and trailing spouses of military veterans have all taken advantage of this educational opportunity.

Eye care is a part of the healthcare industry and is very diversified. For example, 80 ophthalmologists practice in greater Jacksonville. They work in large group practices, institutional practices such as UF and Mayo, and in individual private practices that vary in size. Some practices specialize in a specific subspecialty-- such as retina or pediatrics or glaucoma--and some are comprehensive or multi-specialty practices. Ophthalmic Techs can choose to specialize as well, in accordance with their interest and talent.

Currently, a shortage of Ophthalmic Technicians exists in Jacksonville. Cathy Titus, FSCJ Professor and Interim Program Director of Ophthalmic Technology, said, “Our program boasts a 100 percent job placement rate. Physicians frequently reach out to us, asking when the next group of graduates will be ready to work. “

As many ophthalmic skills are manual and require practice to master, the program offers work-based learning opportunities that are integrated into curriculum via clinicals. Students will spend 840 hours in an externship over the course of study. Clinical hours spent outside of the classroom increase as the student moves through the program. For example, clinical hours range from 120, 240, 480 hours as students complete corresponding semesters.

In 2019, the program had a certification exam pass rate of 75 percent with a 100 percent completion and 100 percent employment rate. If students do not pass the test, they are still hired, learn more skills on the job, and pass their test the next time they sit for the exam. The program can accommodate even more students who are looking for immediate job offers after program completion.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Levenson, the program’s Medical Director and owner of Levenson Eye Associates since 1988, “Everyone who graduates gets a job and has the opportunity to make it not just a job but a career.” Among the companies who have hired recent graduates are Florida Eye Specialists, Mayo Clinic and Levenson Eye Associates. Many techs advance to become office managers and clinical researchers, using their training and experience as a springboard.

One aspect of the program that allows students to demonstrate learning and directly impact the community is the partnership with Vision is Priceless, a Jacksonville charitable organization. According to their website, they help “assess, sustain, and improve the visual health of children and adults in Northeast Florida,” providing nearly 40,000 free vision screenings and nearly 1,400 eye exams to the underserved of our community. A clinic is set up onsite at FSCJ; students provide care to those who would otherwise be unable to receive it, supervised by volunteer doctors. According to Titus, “Students find great satisfaction in putting their learning to work in service to others.” In doing so, students use their skills to add value to their community in a distinctly helpful way.

Students find that graduating from the program meets and exceeds their expectations. Darian Jakubec from the Class of 2019 said, "After becoming a Certified Ophthalmic Technician my career really lifted off. I have the FSCJ Ophthalmic Technician Program to thank for providing me exactly what I was looking for, a firm foundation in a long-term career and passion for rewarding responsibilities that offer endless learning opportunities and experiences. Even after graduating, the program still provides me with guidance and chances to volunteer."

To learn more about the Ophthalmic Technician program, check out:

Kat Hasanovic

MSN, RN-BC at Baptist Health

Finding Growth and Opportunity in Health Care IT

Healthcare offers abundant employment opportunities. Kateita (Kat) Hasanovic, MSN, RN-BC, discovered growth, opportunity, and leadership at Baptist Health by being open to new possibilities in her career pathway.

Hasanovic is the Inpatient Implementation Director on the Epic Project Team at Baptist Health. Under the leadership of Vice President and Chief Medical Information Officer Stacey Johnson, MD, Baptist Health is transitioning to the Epic system to improve health data exchange and access across the hospital.

"The Epic platform will facilitate communication between providers throughout Baptist Health," Hasanovic said. "It improves the quality of patient care by enhancing care coordination and clinical decision-making."

Technology has changed healthcare since Hasanovic arrived at Baptist Health more than 20 years ago after graduating from West Nassau High School. Her first job involved transporting patients around the main hospital.

"At the time, I had no intention of being a nurse," Hasanovic said. "While working in transportation, I could see there were many opportunities at the hospital. I have always been a person who strives to accomplish more."

Hasanovic continued to work at Baptist Health after enrolling in Florida State College of Jacksonville, moving within the hospital to work as a department secretary. Initially, Hasanovic thought she would like to pursue pharmacy as a career pathway. Physician James Joyner, MD., encouraged her to consider nursing.

"Dr. Joyner said I had the personality that should be directly involved with patients," Hasanovic said. "It was a pivotal moment in my life."

Hasanovic earned her associates degree in nursing at FSCJ and began working as a registered nurse at Baptist Health after passing the state board examination. She worked in labor and delivery for more than 12 years, including as assistant nurse manager. During this time, she was selected for Baptist Health's Emerging Leaders program.

"This leadership development program opened my eyes and changed my mindset," Hasanovic said. "If your goal is to move up in an organization, you have to continue your education so that you have the knowledge to contribute to the conversation."

With support from Baptist Health's tuition reimbursement program, Hasanovic attended Jacksonville University and earned a bachelor's degree and master's degree focused on Nursing Administration. Doors opened to more opportunities. A colleague approached Hasanovic to consider a new position in Clinical Informatics, helping to drive the organization's application of techniques. Hasanovic spent nearly 10 years in clinical informatics at Baptist Health, first as a specialist before a promotion to manager and then system director.

"It's important to have a healthcare professional directing and leading IT clinical initiatives," Hasanovic said. "Clinical informatics specialists serve as a liaison between information technology and the healthcare team, with the goal of improving the care provided to patients by making sure clinicians have the tools they need."

Hasanovic is passionate about her career, and she encourages others to consider the tremendous opportunities in healthcare.

"Healthcare is more than doctors and nurses," Hasanovic said. "The hospital is a city of opportunity with a need for a wide range of professionals and workers."

Kensley Hoover

Occupational Therapist at Brooks Rehabilitation at Memorial Hospital

Occupational Therapy Leads to a New Path

Kensley Hoover is a clinician in the field of Occupational Therapy working for Brooks Rehabilitation at Memorial Hospital. She is a native of Waycross, Georgia, but now calls Jacksonville home. While in high school and college, Kensley didn’t have a plan or a set career pathway in mind. Her parents told her she needed to “go to college no matter what,” but she wasn’t certain that she would do with her degree.

Once Kensley earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Georgia Southern University, she got involved with the Miracle League and Special Olympics, which provides abled children and adolescents with physical and intellectual disabilities the option to engage in sports where she worked with children specifically with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome. This experience prompted interest in occupational therapy (OT).

When Kensley began exploring this option, she was told she would need to wait a full year to apply for OT schooling. She wanted to act sooner, so she explored the Associate of Science in Occupational Therapy program at Keiser University in Jacksonville. Within one week, she was accepted and enrolled. Kensley commuted daily for 16 months from Waycross to Jacksonville to attend classes at Keiser. “I look at back at that and wonder how I did it,” she said.

While at Keiser, Kensley took advantage of the work study program. She was paid to work in the college’s Nursing Department, where she scanned, uploaded, and organized documents for the director and instructors as well as assist with various clerical duties. This opportunity provided gas money Kensley needed for her daily commute. However, it also opened doors that have profoundly impacted her career.

After graduating from Keiser University, Kensley took a position at a small hospital in Georgia which provided her valuable work experience. Kensley was soon to be married and with her husband’s job, it would result in a move to Jacksonville. Luckily, Kensley continued to keep in touch with the former nursing director at Keiser University; they conversed about various job opportunities that lead to Kensley applying for a per diem position with Brooks rehab at Memorial Hospital with the nursing director providing a letter of recommendation. Ultimately, Kensley interviewed and was offered the job as a float per diem therapist between Brooks Rehab Hospital and Memorial Hospital. This required her to leave behind a full-time job, all while planning a wedding. After a year of commitment and training, Kensley was officially hired as a full-time occupational therapy assistant at Brooks Rehab at Memorial Hospital. “It was a big leap of faith, but it was definitely worth it!”

Kensley has been actively working at Memorial for two years with her focus in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU), Intensive Care Unit (ICU), and Trauma ICU. She states, “I love being there for people even on their worst days. I’m there for a lot of firsts. First steps, first time to bathroom, toileting, dressing, grooming. After a big event like stroke, open-heart surgery or car accident it’s a major accomplishment. It is very rewarding knowing that I helped them achieve their goals.” Alongside patient care, Kensley is active with multi-disciplinary rounding in the ICU, conducts new hire training, participate with education fairs training for nurses, and transfer training.

Admittedly, working as an OT in the ICU can be daunting, as individuals enter the hospital with severe, medically complex illnesses and injuries. Kensley stresses the importance of being that familiar source of encouragement, compassion, and education for patients as well as their families. It helps to explain the entire process of treatment, as some treatment may look like they cause pain but are meant to increase optimal mobility, stimulate cognition, or decrease ICU delirium. “In the ICU, I help patients the best way I know how. It’s about progressing the patient to their maximum capability.” Sometimes, patients experience coma or death, so Kensley works through those emotions. “It’s hard not to bring it home.”

Kensley sites her grandmother as someone whose legacy impacted her career pathway. During WWII, while her husband was in the Navy, her trailblazing grandmother opened her home to anyone who needed shelter and a hot meal. This hospitality morphed into starting a soup kitchen, which then evolved into a nursing home. Eventually, Kensley’s entrepreneurial-minded grandmother operated six nursing homes. “She was an amazing woman and she cared a lot about others. Mom went into finance and took on the business side of all the nursing homes. Eventually, she and my dad ran the homes.” This influence continues in Kensley’s work. Outside of her professional scope, she tries to help others who are vulnerable. She carries packs of water, protein bars, and hygiene products in her car to be able to help anyone at any time.

Kensley’s advice to anyone thinking about going into occupational therapy? “Volunteer, request to job shadow an OT for a day, and make connections to explore the field.” She also notes “Don’t be surprised when your employer states you’ll work a few holidays. People don’t think about therapy being needed on a holiday. People can decline rapidly and need the continued mobilization in a hospital setting.” Kensley also liked to add that there are so many settings in which a therapist can work. “You go into it thinking you’ll work in an outpatient facility or a school. You may not consider doing therapy in a hospital working with a dementia patient or doing therapy for a patient in hospice. OT is needed in all settings and play important roles with physical and mental recovery.“

Matthew Steinmetz

Business Development Manager at Ascension St. Vincent’s

Growth Through Partnership Synergy

Ascension St. Vincent’s, a Catholic healthcare ministry with a mission to “go where the need is greatest and care for the most vulnerable” is one of Northeast Florida’s largest healthcare organizations. Matthew Steinmetz, Business Development Manager at Ascension St. Vincent’s, enjoys the mission-driven community impact of the health system. Matthew’s roles have allowed him to assist in developing relationships that further the reach of the organization, allowing it increased opportunities to provide quality, compassionate care throughout Northeast Florida.

Matthew’s career pathway was intentional; he approached his education from a strategic long-term perspective. At Florida State University, Matthew studied Interdisciplinary Social Sciences and earned a bachelor’s degree. He was passionate and interested in the curriculum. However, he chose this course of study as a way to continue pursuit of his education. Matthew selected the University of North Florida (UNF) for his master’s degree because, “It’s a competitive school and the dual master’s MBA and Health Administration program allowed me to complete in three years.”

While at UNF, he had the opportunity for an internship with some of the administrators at Ascension St. Vincent’s, many of whom had financial backgrounds. Matthew’s approach to finance work within the health care industry was very intentional, as this background can elevate one’s career. He said, “It’s common that the next person to take the CEO role is the CFO, as they have served in an operational role.” While interning, a position opened at Ascension St. Vincent’s as a Financial Analyst. Matthew took the role and was involved in the continued development of Ascension St. Vincent’s Clay County, a 134-bed hospital which opened in 2013 and has since completed two additional facility expansions.

Matthew has taken on the role of Business Development Manager, allowing him to facilitate new and maintain strong business partnerships. “It’s about the relationships more than anything. It’s the heartwarming part of the organization. Relationships allow us to improve the quality of care rather than us working separately. These partnerships allow us to ensure that best care that can possibly be provided will be provided.”

Recently, Matthew was part of creating a new partnership between two organizations and Ascension Florida and Gulf Coast, the regional health system that includes Ascension St. Vincent’s, Ascension Sacred Heart based in Pensacola, and Ascension Providence in Mobile, Alabama that will facilitate increased services for individuals needing musculoskeletal care, particularly orthopedics. Each entity contributes resources resulting in synergy that benefits each organization and its patients. As Ascension St. Vincent’s continues to expand its footprint, it will “continue to consistently improve quality, communication, and all aspects of care,” according to Matthew.

When asked what he enjoys about his role within the business side of Healthcare, Matthew states, “Every day’s a different day. I chose this industry because healthcare is constantly evolving. Also, it seemed more recession-proof than other careers.” Matthew notes that Ascension St. Vincent’s made a point to do everything possible to assist its staff and protect their pay when the COVID-19 pandemic began. “I’m really proud to work for a company that made this kind of commitment.”

Matthew realizes the important role education has played in his career pathway and encourages others to seek out post-secondary opportunities. “Education is really important in healthcare. Many of my col- leagues are returning to school for master’s degrees to position themselves for what could be next.” He encourages individuals to take advantage of company-sponsored training programs and tuition reimbursement, as it can serve as a fantastic career laddering opportunity. “Plan for the long-term. Know your goals. Don’t worry about titles and money. People chase titles and money. Be intentional about your career.”

Sammie Fendig

Firefighter/Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department

An Inextinguishable Flame

For many, their experience with firefighters starts and ends with an elementary school field trip. However, for some, it is a viable career pathway and a passion that burns as bright as the very flames they extinguish.

For Sammie Fendig, Firefighter for the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department (JFRD), firefighting offers the opportunity to execute learned skills and satisfy a driven, adrenaline-junkie nature. "It's unlike anything else," she says.

Sammie grew up in Fernandina Beach and obtained a much-loved summer job as a lifeguard for ocean rescue at age 17. At age 18, she took a First Responder class, incentivized by the pay raise that accompanied successful completion. "I fell in love with it immediately. I still remember my first rescue," says Sammie. Clearly, this summer job influenced her future career choice. "I've learned that many lifeguards joined the fire service. It's a natural segue. It also pays better than other entry-level jobs."

Despite her positive initial reaction to an occupation involving risk, physical fitness and saving lives, she enrolled in school as an art major at Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ), where she studied photography and graphic design while holding various food service jobs. Sammie enjoyed art, but she wanted something different.

After earning her Associates degree, Sammie bought a one-way ticket to Costa Rica, where she spent three months immersing herself in an entirely new culture. This experience allowed her to consider next steps. "I needed this time to grow and gain more confidence."

Upon returning home, she enrolled in and completed FSCJ's Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and Paramedic programs, which led directly to Fire School at First Coast Technical College in St. Augustine.

Individuals begin as Probationary Firefighters and can be promoted to Engineer (Driver). Regardless of experience, starting a job at a new firehouse requires starting at the bottom. After completing Fire School, Sammie worked for the St. Johns Fire Rescue. There, she grew her skills for 5 years before taking a job with the JFRD as she is interested in working for an aggressive major metropolitan fire department.

Firefighters work 10-11 shifts per month and are on for 24 hours and off for 48 hours. Firefighting exemplifies a paramilitary-style hierarchy in an extended family environment. Sammie states, "You live in a house with these people every third day. There's a close dynamic and inside jokes. Of a firefighter's rookie year, Sammie likens it to having a first-year learning curve on a typical job combined with additional challenges. "You need to prove yourself. You need to listen more than you talk."

Firefighting involves a combination of skill, knowledge, experience, and gut instinct to successfully execute a firefighting strategy. A healthy respect for the danger involved in fighting fires cannot border on fear. A sense of urgency drives quick decision-making. Where people may think it's just about "running into a building," it involves understanding the science behind fire behavior, requiring knowledge of construction, building codes, electrical and plumbing systems.

There's also math behind fighting fires. For example, if an average engine holds 500 gallons of water, firefighters must calculate how long it will last on an internal or external fire depending on its structure and other factors until other engines arrive. Calculations are made against the backdrop of a critical situation involving life and property.

While Sammie knew firefighting was a perfect fit, others may want to first explore this potential career pathway. She encourages a ride-a-long and says, "EMT is a semester long. Even if you don't choose this pathway, it's worth your time to learn these skills, particularly CPR." She's seen others get into paramedic programs and then pursue nursing or medical school, for example. So, this training can be a springboard to healthcare or to public service.

Ultimately, Sammie says of her career choice, "It's never entered my mind that I couldn't do it. I just want to be the hardest working person in the room."


Deep Dive into the Member Care Specialist Role

You may ask yourself if this role is too good to be true: working 9 months on and three months off all while receiving full benefits, paid time off, and incentive bonuses? A job where you can self-select to go full time, or remain on the schedule above? A job where you can pursue educational opportunities on the “off” time while still having access to a variety of amenities such as golf and basketball to stay healthy as well as continued networking with other colleagues?

This role exists and is in demand at GuideWell.

Member Care Specialist is a key role in meeting the mission of “helping people and communities achieve better health.” Each day, the Member Care Specialist handles between 20 to 40 consecutive calls of potential, new and existing customers which include individual members, group members, business decision makers and agents. Collectively, they receive 10 thousand calls on a slow day and 30 thousand calls on a busy day. Each call taken helps meet the hospital’s mission.

Member Care Specialists have one of the most critical roles in that they interface with the public on the company’s behalf. They’re helping to navigate a complicated system and ensure that members understand how to use their benefits. They also resolve inquiries and process transactions.

When the job was initially created, previous call center experience was required. However, the HR team soon realized they needed individuals with a collaborative, customer service background which could include retail or volunteering. George Cross, Sr. Director, Member Service Center indicated, “These roles turn into professional translators. You are learning another language of medical and insurance terminology. For example, co-pays versus deductibles. What is the difference between oncology and hematology? What is primary care? What constitutes a specialty drug? Your job is to listen to the situation and translate it into the customer’s situation. How good are you at this translation process?” Good customer service involves listening skills and being able to articulate ideas that may seem intimidating to members.

Being able to respond to member calls involves not only a thorough understanding of their plan’s features and benefits, but ultimately involves truly caring about each unique situation. Cross recognizes the importance of “a heart for service. I can teach you the technical knowledge, but I can’t teach you to care. If you like helping people and solving problems, this can be a long-term career path.”

A genuine interest in helping people will allow Member Care Specialists to succeed, particularly when they learn to apply empathy and listening skills to various situations. For example, learning to ask questions is essential. Cross said, “You can’t assume anything. You need to know the entire context of the situation. Someone could be calling in to get a new ID card. You don’t know if they just lost it or are taking their child to the hospital and are afraid they’ll be denied care. It’s important to ask good questions to lead people to answers.”

This position can serve as a launching pad for additional opportunities within the organization as well. Many examples exist throughout the organization of individuals who began on the phones and were promoted to other positions after several years. Ultimately, the Member Care Specialist role affords individuals to develop critical skills that impact members as well as their professional colleagues while truly helping others.


Wolfson's Hospital NICU Respiratory Therapist

Six years ago, Almira and her two children moved to Jacksonville from Philadelphia to start fresh. Her son and daughter both struggle with health issues, so Almira knew she wanted to begin a career in the medical field. While up north, she earned a patient tech credential. However, she found herself wanting to move beyond just an entry-level position.
Almira utilized one of Jacksonville’s community-based organizations by joining BEAM’s Single Parent Program (SPP). With their help, Almira found a patient scheduler job at a local hospital. Almira also utilized another resource via the ASTEP program through Goodwill Industries of North Florida.
According to, the “A-STEP program aims to provide working adults in North Florida access to higher education in order to elevate earning potentials and job security.” Almira applied to ASTEP and began taking classes at Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ) in mid-2015.
A year later, Almira’s position was outsourced. She persevered, landing a job working for a local healthcare system at the registration desk. For 2 years, Almira plugged away at completing pre-requisite classes. In 2017, she was accepted into the FSCJ respiratory therapy program.
Almira graduated in May of 2019 with an Associate in Science in Respiratory Care, despite issues that could have caused her to quit. She overcame health issues and severe test anxiety. She successfully passed 2 state exams in late summer 2019. Almira was immediately offered a position with Wolfson’s Hospital Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) as a Respiratory Therapist. She loves working with children and giving individual care.
Almira says this about her profession in the patient side of healthcare: “I am so blessed to have been selected as a RTA on the NICU floor at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. I am grateful to be a part of an amazing medical team dedicated to helping the sickest (and youngest) patients with chronic respiratory problems increase their survival rate and improve quality of life through Respiratory Therapy. It is my passion. It is my heart. It is my lifelong dream and I couldn’t be happier.”
As a result of her persistence and work ethic, Almira closed on her very first home in the Arlington area in January 2020. Almira is one of many single mothers in the ASTEP program. She sets an example for how hard work and educational achievement in a growing career pathway leads to long-term success.

Mandy Stelz

Keiser University Clinical Coordinator/Radiologic Technology Instructor

Originally from Florida's Panhandle, Keiser University Clinical Coordinator/Radiologic Technology Instructor Mandy Stelz relocated to Jacksonville after completing a hospitality degree. She had been accepted to Mayo Clinic's School of Radiography in Jacksonville and decided to realize a childhood dream.
"As a kid, I broke a lot of bones and had a lot of x-rays. Despite being in pain, I was fascinated by my x-rays and wanted an explanation of what those x-rays meant," Mandy said.
Following completion of the Mayo program, Mandy left Jacksonville and worked at a Pensacola Hospital as an X-ray Technologist. There, she helped train college radiography students. Mandy moved back to Jacksonville to work in MRI, but the spark for teaching was lit. So, when a former professor reached out with an adjunct teaching opportunity, Mandy's career path changed. This led to Keiser University, where she's taught for six years.
Mandy realized "There's a lot to education. You're not just standing in front of a classroom." So, she pursued her master's degree in Education with Keiser University and is now in the process of earning her Doctorate in Educational Technology from Walden University. Those doctorate studies have added tremendous value to her teaching approach during the pandemic, as she implemented strategies learned into her own classroom. She also continued use of a pre-pandemic strategy of asking students to record themselves executing learned skills, followed up by self-assessment. This has now become a best practice in her teaching repertoire and ensures that students are ready for clinical experiences.
One of her favorite moments while teaching is when a student's learning all comes together. "We study medical terminology, positioning, radiation physics, and anatomy and physiology. When that lightbulb moment happens, I have genuine excitement for students."
In her role as Clinical Coordinator at Keiser University, Mandy visits over 20 clinical sites to assess students in action. These sites are top healthcare systems in the region who hire students following degree completion. Mandy follows students in the field as working techs. She said, "I want students to go into their clinicals and love it." However, she will encourage them to continue their education via Keiser's Bachelor in Imaging Science program.
"Teaching is one of the most rewarding things you can do, so it takes time to know yourself and develop your style. It's okay to question yourself and feel overwhelmed, "claims Mandy. She encourages new teachers to find a mentor and keep a journal. She sees the role of the teacher as being a perpetually positive leader who easily adapts to change, someone who ensures that students are seen and heard, and someone who illuminates the "why" and "how" to students so they can put learning into practice. One of Mandy's favorite quotes speaks to this philosophy and comes from William Butler Yeats: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
Ultimately, broken bones have led to a fulfilling career pathway as a college educator.

IT & Innovation

Emtec Inc.

Growing Talent through Internships

Emtec, Inc., an IT Strategy and Consulting, Digital Transformation company recently relocated its global headquarters to Jacksonville from Pennsylvania. The company has worked in the Jacksonville market for 18 years; they are interested in continuing that work as well as expansion in cybersecurity. To keep up with demand for talent, Emtec has taken a proactive approach, particularly regarding their internship program with Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) students.

In conjunction with Emtec, DCPS sponsored 105 student interns in summer 2019 who were selected from 10 schools to work on 75,000 computers to perform a preventative maintenance cleaning and reimaging prior to the new school year. Students receive a week of training which equips them to travel to various schools and refresh student and teacher laptops as part of imaging and cleaning teams. The program has blossomed from its inception 5 years ago in which fewer than 10 students were involved. While students have a great deal of responsibility for costly equipment, they have “risen to the challenge and gained important soft skills,” according to Doug Goodall, Managing Director of Emtec Infrastructure Services. Students work 32 hours a week at $10 per hour.

The internship is truly a workforce development strategy. As a result of the summer internship, 10 to 15 students are extended an additional 5 or 6 months with Emtec to complete the yearly PC refresh project. Any students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in IT will graduate with six years of progressive IT experience. According to Mike Marino, Operations Manager, Emtec employees rally around the interns, providing support and expertise. The program has become an important aspect of the company culture.

Renaissance JAX

Offering Impactful Robotics Experiences

As the exclusive Program Delivery Partner in Northeast Florida, the mission of Renaissance Jax (RJAX) is to build and retain talented, creative young people in Northeast Florida through opportunities involving FIRST Robotics, STEM education, and mentor-driven experiences. Providing the FIRST progression of programs allows RJAX to instill and invest in students as young as six years old, fostering interest in STEM and building holistic skills as they transition from LEGO to building 18-inch robots, learn Java programming, and more.

RJAX's corporate partners bolster the FIRST curriculum and provide the opportunity to mentor top talent and bring a variety of career options to students' attention. RJAX previously partnered with JEA to host a summer camp for participating Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) high school students. They received hands-on experience by learning to design, build and program a robot. They delved into the process of entrepreneurship with JAXChamber and toured JEA locations to hear from employees about various career pathways. Every student expressed interest in a career at JEA at the conclusion of their five-week experience.

Renaissance Jax regularly tasks students with a hard problem that needs solving. The COVID-19 pandemic caused teams' meeting capabilities to drastically change, resulting in major questions regarding how to share robotics supplies to produce robots. Students learned that if they could not produce a physical robot, they could build a virtual one. Alyssa Olsen and Ishika Doma from J. Allen Axson Elementary School not only taught themselves how to use two digital programs, but they also presented to coaches and fellow students across 28 counties in Northeast and Central Florida. "I learned how useful both LEGO Digital Designer and BrickLink can be for teams to collaborate online to create a digital robot," Ishika said of the experience. Alyssa learned about architecture with LEGO, saying it was "the opportunity of a lifetime to teach a real class in front of real people at the age of ten." Both Alyssa and Ishika then began exploring programs such as Fusion360, participating in challenges alongside high school robotics students.

While FIRST teams all around the world helped produce 3D printed face shields to address the PPE shortage early in the pandemic, RJAX students also assisted in the effort to solve UF Health's PPE shortage. Ultimately, RJAX included students in their community effort to provide face shields that were safe to reuse and easily reproduce.

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, RJAX continues to serve nearly 3,000 students across Northeast and Central Florida. New partnerships with JTA and Amazon through DCPS and the Jacksonville Icemen are just some exciting developments as they strive to engage and invest in the future workforce.

Jansen Holmes

Network Engineer at Bank of America

In 2014, Jansen Holmes began pursuing education at St Johns River State College (SJR State). After working outside the United State for several years, he returned to Northeast Florida and obtained his Associates Degree in Computer Network Engineering. He has also completed the Cisco Networking Academy and is currently a Network Engineer at Bank of America through Select Group.
Jansen was always interested in dissembling and assembling computers. While working overseas, he spoke to many in the IT field and was intrigued. Upon returning to the States, enrolled at SJR State. After observing the other students, Jansen felt like he needed to take additional classes to supplement his knowledge. Professor Bell encouraged him to stick with it and just ask questions. Jansen found he put in many late nights to persist, but he was motivated to succeed and determined to feel comfortable in IT. He flourished in the hands-on classroom environment fixing equipment and learned to manage his expectations about the industry from hands-on, real-world examples. He said, “I didn’t realize how far I had come in a year until I was able to help other people. You have to have a passion for it.”
Jansen shares helpful advice with young professionals entering the IT field, saying, “You get your foundation in school but it’s a totally different world at work. You will be nervous at the beginning, but people will help you. Be sure to run things past people but try to solve the problem first.” Jansen finds he is constantly learning and communicating best practices with his team.
“If you like fixing it, it’s fun. There will be long nights when something goes wrong. There will be pressure to perform, but the satisfaction in fixing a problem is great.” He advises that IT professionals hone the skills of paying attention to detail, becoming calm to think under pressure, multi-task, make decisions and think for yourself. Jansen also sees merit in taking advantage of internship opportunities and avoid discouragement when looking for an entry-level job.