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Biology graduate turns interest in medicine into a career with the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office

Growing up with parents who were both nurses, Sara Sabatino ’14 was, for as long as she can remember, interested in the medical aspects of nearly everything. However, around the time she started thinking about what kind of career she might like to pursue, television saw a boom in forensic crime shows.

“I started watching some, but I also knew they were fake,” she says. “There was a lot more going on, so I wanted to learn what went in to doing forensic work and doing autopsies.”

That interest turned into a career aspiration and Sabatino, a graduate of the biology program, is now head forensic autopsy technician for the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office.

In her position, she is often responsible for doing dissections for autopsies and collecting specimens. Sabatino is also the morgue manager, where she makes sure everything is running smoothly.

When her interest first piqued in a forensic science career, she had the opportunity to shadow pathologists and observe autopsies. “When I didn’t go running from the room, I thought it was a good fit for me,” she says.

Knowing she wanted to pursue a biology degree, she decided to attend Misericordia University because of the biology program – one of the few she found that had a gross anatomy lab – and the small class sizes.

She remembers being particularly impressed with the personal touch in her acceptance letter, which incorporated part of her essay from her application. When she found the biology program to be difficult at first, the personal relationships she was able to develop with faculty members encouraged her. “My freshman year, I thought about leaving the program because it was hard and it was
challenging,” Sabatino admits. “But I was able to talk to my professors because we were all so close and it was a small school. They were able to calm me down and it helped me realize this is what I want to do, that I should be doing something biology-related.”During her senior year, she was one of three students to begin working with Professor Frank DiPino, Jr., Ph.D., on molecular biology research to develop a potential treatment for breast cancer. Sabatino only had one year on the project, but the experience was invaluable. “Just from that one year though, we got to go to a conference in New Orleans and present there,” she says. “We presented at Misericordia for new students. We got to pair with The Commonwealth Medical College (now Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine), so that was great to have a collaboration with a medical school.”

It was also at Misericordia that Sabatino met her future husband, William Cooney ’12, a graduate in computer science. They married in September 2017. After graduating, Sabatino went on to the Pennsylvania College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM), where she earned a master’s in forensic medicine in 2016. She found herself well prepared, and ahead of the curve. Along with her undergraduate degree work and research experiences, Sabatino says she learned how to study and manage time at Misericordia – and the University’s cadaver lab boosted her background. “Being able to actually get into it before I was in grad school was great because that really cemented that that was what I wanted to do,” she says. “It really helped. In grad school, we did not really get to do autopsies. Having that background actually put me ahead in my class. That was amazing to have in my background.”

In addition to her work in the coroner’s office, Sabatino is also manager of the gross anatomy lab at PCOM. Her responsibilities there include tracking the cadavers that are donated to the school and working closely with the Humanity Gifts Registry, which coordinates the donation of bodies to science. She also meets with families to return remains once the lab work is completed. Meanwhile, she loves her work as an autopsy technician in the county coroner’s office but it is not without its challenges. It is not how crime shows might lead you to believe – homicide cases that come into the coroner’s office are not as frequent. The office deals with five categories of death: undetermined, accidental, suicide, homicide and natural. Most of what Sabatino sees are drug-related deaths. “That’s about 70 percent of my intake,” she says, adding that nearly all of those are opioid-related. The most difficult parts of the job are autopsies on young people, suicides and homicides. “Under the circumstances, it is hard to think of the family life, and of course younger individuals, it is terrible to think about,” Sabatino says.

Challenges aside, Sabatino has a career she loves – one she has long dreamed of pursuing. “I’ve always wanted to be in this field,” she explains. “Actually getting to be here and do what I have wanted to do for forever makes me happy. I love biology and anatomy, and I love seeing how something minor happening in the body can affect the entire body.”While she is happy with what she is doing now, one day she would like to become a medicolegal death investigator, a position that investigates the scene of death, medical history and other background to help determine the cause of suspicious, unexplained or violent deaths.

While a graduate student, Sabatino had an internship with the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office that made her realize that could be a career path. “I found out from that I’m really nosy and I want to know what is going on in people’s lives and what leads to things,” she says. “I think eventually that would be a good fit for me to become adeath investigator.”

In the meantime, Sabatino wants to help anyone who is interested in pursuing a similar career path, and she encourages students to reach out to her at sarasa@pcom.edu. She would be glad to help others learn about her dream career – one in which Misericordia helped shape an early interest and propel her forward. “It was probably the best experience I ever could have gotten,” she says.