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Born a Texan, but traveled the US extensively.  Now staying on the East coast.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A day in the Life of the Laboratory

This is going to be a boring post. For those who were ever curious about what it means to work at the lab, today is your day!
I am going to give a blow by blow account of just what it is I am doing. It has been on my mind a while, so much so, I thought I had done a post on it already.
I had a friend give me a ride today and i was glad she called because it was raining out and I hate walking in the rain.
This also means I get in early and I am used to that.
I wait to swipe in (yes we have what is known as a "Kronos" Card something developed because some citizens of this town do not trust its employees to work a full day...if they only knew...), doing mundane things like turning on my computer and reading temperatures a various refrigerators and incubators. I swipe in and proceed to process some samples that came in that I knew could wait yesterday: a report of a person being bitten by something he could not see, so he brings whatever on brown sticky tape all waded up (this is the third time). I take my time, looking through a stereoscope, unfolding the tape with gloves on, but there is nothing again.
I can look through the stereoscope without my glasses, but have to put them on to unfold the tape.
Then a sample I was not satisfied with, brought in by the police complaining of bites at work in the office. Found out as I was leaving yesterday that there are birds nests in the building . I had originally tentatively identified it as a larval tick because it appeared to have 6 legs, but mouth parts were missing. It was captured on scotch tape and was still alive. This time I used the microscope to determine that the 2 things stuck out in front that made it look like a tick, were actually legs. Ah a bird mite! Everyone was so anxious to know yesterday that they ran with a "probably a larval tick" from my verbal statement as I am leaving to go home yesterday. I really do not care. The official report will go out.
The environmental inspector that works with the lab the most (mostly beach, pool and shellfish samples) comes in a tells me what the official rain is overnight.
A phone call comes in from a person in a neighboring town with a mysterious thing happening with his well water. i listen, make an assessment and give a probable answer. I do not think it has anything to do with the well, but rather a "dead" pipe in his house.
A water sample comes in from Stamford, they are worried because they are in some vicinity of Scofield Park. I have to assure them that if there is a problem in the first set of the problems near their house, we will look at it, but houses between theirs and the park have been clean.
Log in the sample and prepare to do some of the work.
Prepare 4 samples brought in from Norwalk harbor, these are interesting samples to me because Norwalk has one of the most difficult treatment plants to manage and these samples may show how difficult. Most of the work was already done on them yesterday (sample holding time and testing is actually critical), but what I am doing today tests a theory that Art Glowka (The Patron Saint of Long Island Sound, look him up) brought to me.
Standardize the pH meter (Every instrument gets verified the day of use to prove to me it is working correctly). Then I read the pH and do an alkalinity measure on the sample that came in first thing.
Another phone call with 2 issues, swine flu and Lyme disease testing and treatment. I listen and give all the info I know of and end up reassuring the person that things are not to panic over. It seems to happen often.
It is now 9:30 Am, I have been working a bit over an hour and a half. It is time for a break.
No partner again today, I believe she may be sick and I hope it is not a problem with her mother. I go down to the cafeteria for 15 minutes and close my eyes while having coffee and a danish.
Time to read the bacteria plates from yesterday's Norwalk Harbor samples, 12 plus a positive and negative control for each organism (4). Each organism is grown differently and each colony represents one organism from the original sample and each is different. I record them and realize that I have not recorded the insect samples that came in yesterday and do so.
I am now setting up for 4 more tests; Chlorides, nitrate-nitrogen, nitrite-nitrogen and phosphate. The well sample has all of them since the person is worried about fertilizer getting into the well. The Norwalk Harbor samples will only have the chloride test done, but I have to dilute 100 fold.
Each test has a blank and a standard, one duplicate sample and a "standard addition" to a sample to assure everyone I am doing thing correctly. This is for the chloride test (it is a titration).
The nitrate, nitrate and phosphate test are colorimetric tests check using a spectrophotometer and I must set up a "line" of known standards to verify my work, a minimum detectable standard, a standard in the mid range, a high range standard and a standard at the maximum level readable.
Another sample comes in, just for bacteria though and that goes in the refrigerator waiting its turn.
What about my coworkers you ask? Well the office support person is doing "Front desk" duty for the health department and so is not in the lab, The clinical chemist is at a "well child clinic" taking blood samples and my lab director is at a Department head meeting. So I am alone.
Another person comes into the lab. they have to wait till I finish setting thing up.
They want sample containers to test their well for possible bacteria. That was quick.
Another phone call wanting to know is we are interested in a skunk that died on a persons front porch. I have to tell him it would only be if some one were exposed to the saliva of the skunk that we would get involved and then i tell him how to dispose of it.
Some tests have time constraints and I start running those before anything else happens.
I need to input thing into the computer. All the database are in access and i created them. Often I see something that could be improved and do so. Today was no exception and into the VBA code I go and fix things up nice and tidy.
Print a report from bacteria tests i read today on a well and put it on the office support person's desk for later mailing.
Rad all my values on the tests I am doing a put them into a log book. Later i will enter them and get results for each sample.
Another call from a neighboring town. Today they are bringing me only 2 samples, the rest i find out later they will send up to the state lab (maybe they got mad that i rejected those unannounced samples last week). That is okay. Nitrite and phosphate tests are done, Now i get to Wait for a cadmium reduction column to change the nitrate in the samples to nitrite, so i can read them, this is a slow process. I enter raw data so i can get my results on the other tests.
After the nitrate test I bring out the plates for the neighboring beach samples so they can warm up.
I read our own beach plates from yesterday and need to confirm 2 samples because they may have high enterococcus values. i doubt it because there are no fecal coliforms from the samples, this will take 20 more minutes.
I set up my lab ware to be washed. There was a time that we would get interns, not this year. They were always very smart and needed experience, not money. Many (14, I think) went on to become doctors and the like (one even had an experiment on the shuttle)! The girls (too young to be called women) were alweays cute and the boys respectful. i think they all learned something.
And then I set up things that needed to be sterilized.
Restocked my sample bottle supply for the from of the lab.
I read the last of the E. coli plates from the Norwalk Harbor samples and enter the results.
I enter the titration results and print the report. This was incoming tide and it is interesting, outgoing should be really interesting.
The neighboring town's samples come in and I have a few moments to discuss the issues about this set of samples. They might show more of what we found out last week and i am curious.
I det them up and run them with positve and negative conteols and a blank and a split sample.
By this time I am beginning to fade, it is 1:00 PM and everyone has been back from their various outside duties, but it is time for lunch, I am alone again.
This actually was a slow day, some where I was able to get into a discussion on e mail about problems from a sewage spill at a fresh water lake. i had to call to get my certification standard tests' cost and then submit a order. My eye sight issues cost the City an additional $700 from me initially not being able to read numbers correctly (when i was pushing myself too much at the beginning). I got a call form Perkin-Elmer about the replacement costs of an instrument I desperately need to do metals work (the machine died last year and we just got budget money for it). They e mailed the quote, about $50,000. The first machine I went to New Jersey with a friend and got it for free, but it was old and it died last year.
Our Emergency management person came and asked for a copy of the article I just had published in the Journal of Environmental Health. it was 2:00 PM, I was swaying, it was time to go home and rest.
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