Sam Matthews is a self-proclaimed weirdo — and proud of it. Told for years that her desire to work with dead people was strange, crazy, impossible and not the path for her, Matthews is a graduate of the pathologists’ assistant program in Wayne State University’s Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and has every intention of doing just that. Passionate about forensics, Matthews will work as a travelling forensics pathologists’ assistant after graduation.
As a pathologists’ assistant, Matthews looks at anything that can be taken off or out of someone during surgery — internal or external, biopsies of tissues and full organs — then describes and dissects them down to microscope slides so a doctor can make a diagnosis. Similar to physician assistants, pathologists’ assistants’ assist doctors, but on the pathology side of things, and conduct autopsies.
“I always knew I wanted to do something medical,” reflected Matthews. “I like the sciences. Even when I was in undergrad, I wanted to be a medical examiner; I had wanted to be one since I was little.”
Matthews, who enjoys problem-solving, was drawn to the puzzle that crime-solving presented but also wanted a career in medicine. She completed her bachelor of science in biology at Northern Michigan University with the plan to go to medical school afterwards. Though that was her intended path, she couldn’t help but return to her desire to work in pathology. “I heard, ‘You’re not going to get in,’ ‘You won’t like pathology,’ ‘Everyone who does pathology is weird,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m weird so…’” laughed Matthews.
From studying biology, graduating and preparing for the MCAT (and never taking it) to working at a veterinary hospital in Wisconsin, discovering the field of pathologists’ assistant and then shadowing Wayne State pathologists’ assistants at Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Matthews feels her non-linear, beautiful journey went exactly as it was meant to.
“Wayne State has always been on my register. Even in undergrad, I was considering going there,” said Matthews. “When I did my initial search for pathologists’ assistant, of the 11 schools in North America at the time, the only one in Michigan was Wayne State. I thought, ‘Wow, that's awesome.’” She applied right away.
Out of all the programs Matthews considered, Wayne State’s had the most emphasis on forensics. She said it was just a two-for-one kind of deal — in-state tuition, plus very forensics-driven. Fun fact: The director of the program is also the head of the task force for forensic pathologists’ assistants. “All the pieces clicked together, so it felt meant to be,” she added.
Though Matthews didn’t get in the first time she applied, she didn’t let that stop her. If anything, it reiterated her convictions that this was her next step, no matter what. “In my first interview, I was asked, ‘What are you going to do if you don't get in?’ I said, ‘Well, I'm going to keep bugging you until I do.’ I had been told no, don't do it, no, no, no for so long, I just had to remember why I was doing it, which was for me; I've always wanted to do this for myself. And yes, I've had a bunch of support but I got myself here.”
At the end of her adventure to finding a career where she could work in forensics and with dead people, Matthews finally feels like she picked the right school, program and career — that she made her dreams come true. On top of that, for the first time, she’s around people who have the exact, specific interest as her. “All my peers, classmates, professors and preceptors are like-minded people, people who are like me,” Matthews smiled. “Not even that we’re the same, it’s just cool to have a similar interest and see how different we are but still have this one unifying thing of pathology.”
She found her fellow weirdos.
Already a small, niche career field, pathologists’ assistant becomes even more so when you add the forensics component. For some, that could be intimidating, isolating or unsettling. For Matthews, it’s invigorating, exciting and reaffirming. In a profession she loves so much, one that’s headed towards an exponential growth, Matthews is happy to be at the forefront, to spread the word and educate others about forensics, especially others who are different like her.
In an essay from June 2022, Matthews wrote, “As a woman who is queer, colored and educated, I fit into multiple minority groups, some of which are the most marginalized.” The president of Wayne State’s pathologists’ assistant Diversity and Community initiative, Matthews plans to continue to use the momentum she’s made at Wayne State to further diversify the field and present it as a career possibility for anyone and everyone, especially those who haven’t seen anyone who looks like them in that role.
To anyone who wants to do what Matthews does — or anyone who wants to do anything at all — she says this: Keep going, do what you have to do to get there. Don’t let other influences, experiences or people stop you from that. Remember what you want to do and why you’re doing it, use that passion to push you forward even when you get bogged down. And when you have a hard time, hit a roadblock or backtrack, don’t forget why you started. If you want it, you get it.
“I’m honored and floored to be able to share my story and thoughts,” gushed Matthews. “But at the same time, I know I’m amazing.”
By Katheryn Kutil