The doctoral degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch was a milestone — to be sure.
But it was the chocolate chip cookies on her doorstep and the congratulations cards from strangers in her Indian community that proved to Dr. Niti Vyas she was a pioneer.
In 2020, the San Jacinto College medical laboratory technology alumna numbered among the first 10 students nationwide to earn the new Doctorate of Clinical Laboratory Sciences. But within her culture, Vyas also represented a goal-setter. A woman who had stood up for herself, returning to school as a single mom in her mid-30s.
"I showed the world it was possible — by God's grace, fate, and self-love," she said.
Vyas' journey to earn her doctoral degree started with leaving an abusive marriage.
"Imagine me — middle of nowhere, not a dime in my pocket," Vyas said. "I picked up my child and walked out."
When she came to San Jac in 2012, she was still reeling from her recent divorce. Raising her child, supporting her husband in his business, and maintaining a home had consumed her for the last 12 years.
What she did know: She wanted to provide a higher standard of living for her son and claim her identity again.
"I wanted an individual identity — not just a mom, wife, or sister," she said.
Years earlier, Vyas had earned a microbiology degree from the University of Mumbai, but her credits wouldn't transfer to the U.S. medical field. Enter San Jac's medical laboratory technology program. The affordable courses would mirror her previous training and still give her time for her son.
While it wasn't common in her culture to pursue education at her age, her family supported her decision.
Leaping over hurdles
In the beginning, Vyas had to leap over cultural and financial hurdles. But an even higher hurdle was her own self-doubt. She didn't know how to use a laptop, drive downtown, or even pay bills.
"With change comes a lot of uncertainties and struggles," she said.
As a single mom herself, Dr. Lindsey Douglas, former medical laboratory technology faculty member, stepped in to help. Douglas, who is now the program director, offered Vyas academic and emotional support. She encouraged her, tutored her, and worked around her family needs so she could remain in the program.
"I think the personal connection and having a strong, independent female role model helped her to feel safe to share her needs and reach out for help that she may not have been able to otherwise," Douglas said.
Another blessing for Vyas was landing a clinical opportunity at Houston Methodist Hospital, where she got exposure to microbiology, hematology, blood bank, and chemistry in a high-volume lab.
"Seventy percent of medical decisions [are] made by your medical lab results," she said. "We help doctors with patient diagnosis through blood tests and urine collections."
When she didn't understand something, teachers sat with her one-on-one to explain.
Setting higher goals
Graduating from San Jac, Vyas boasted a strong foundation in lab skills after almost two decades away from the field. In addition, her Houston Methodist clinical not only validated her career pathway but led to a technician position there.
While Vyas enjoyed working in a lab, she wanted to continue learning. Her long-term vision just wasn't clear yet.
"Life was too full of challenges at that time," she said.
To lower her education costs, she enrolled in UTMB's LEAP program, which allowed some San Jac credits to apply toward her bachelor's degree. While pursuing this degree, she pondered teaching future laboratorians at the university level. This would require an even higher degree.
While fields like pharmacy and nursing offered doctoral programs, clinical laboratory science was late to the table.
"Clinical laboratory science needed to fill the gap between the doctors and the lab," Vyas said.
As she was wrapping up her bachelor's degree, Vyas learned UTMB would be the first in Texas to offer a Doctorate of Clinical Laboratory Sciences program. This degree would bridge the gap, allowing laboratorians to consult alongside medical doctors, ensuring the correct tests are ordered, and even interacting with patients. It would also allow her to teach.
"I set my heart on it after learning about it," she said.
Vyas joined the second cohort. When she graduated from the three-year program in summer 2020, she numbered among the first 10 students in the nation to earn this new degree. She also "lucked out" with an assistant professor position in UTMB's department of clinical laboratory sciences.
"Now I teach undergraduate, master's, and doctoral students," she said.
Proving the impossible possible
While Vyas celebrates a feat few others in the U.S. have achieved yet, her former San Jac instructors are not surprised she has gone so far. Despite her personal challenges, she had the support and work ethic to achieve her dream.
"Niti is an example of determination," Douglas said. "She set out to accomplish her dream to work in the field of medical laboratory technology, and she worked hard until it was her reality."
Instructor Tina Fontenot is "mama proud" that Vyas pursued teaching and proved a doctorate is achievable.
"She is among just a few Doctorate of Clinical Laboratory Sciences grads for now who are eligible to consult and work with doctors and teams of health care professionals to help make the diagnostic pathway better and more cost-effective for patients," Fontenot said.
For Vyas, the defining moment goes back to those cookies on her doorstep. She inspired her community by standing up for herself and reaching her full potential.
It took eight years to go from a scared single mom to a confident doctoral graduate and professor. While she used to question her circumstances, now she is fulfilling her calling: "touching other people's lives." If she could do it, anyone can, she says.
"Believe in yourself," Vyas said. "Nothing is impossible. It's just a little difficult."
Discover a behind-the-scenes medical career
Explore a career in medical discovery! San Jac's medical laboratory technology program can get you started. The program recently celebrated its five-year reaccreditation. Learn more: