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

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Lab and the First Two Years

The building was a small two story brick building, the second floor had been an add on a few years previously and it housed the entire health department.
The lab, which had previously been in a single cramped room on the first floor, had been moved to the second floor and was some what spacious for its time.
All the labs i had worked in previously were in basements and this lab had windows that opened!
It was not a well equipped nor sophisticated lab, but it was functional.
There were mismatched pieces of furniture and a couple of actual lab benches.
There were well, a total of four instruments; a pH meter, an ancient spectrophotometer, another ancient fluorescent spectrophotometer and a non-working gas chromatograph.
There were chemicals purchased years earlier, that had not even been opened.
This was not just a water testing lab, but basically did the work for what ever grant the current health director was ale to get money for.
The unused gas chromatograph had been purchased many years earlier to test for pesticides from an old dump in North Stamford.  Finding nothing, the machine laid covered with dust.  The chemicals were from an air sampling program that was finished.  The amount of clinical testing done by the lab was impressive and was funded by the state VD (as it was called back then) program.  When things became more regulated, our lab would be ranked "highly complex" because of the skills needed to interpret bacterial plates and quantify the level of infection of a syphilis test. 
I was comfortable with those test and i became comfortable with the person who ran most of those tests, a sophisticated Jewish lady, who had significant hospital experience, but preferred the slightly less pressured job at this lab.  She was also the best phlebotomist i have ever met.  She was also doing drug screening in urine for a nearby half way house.
Another grant for lead poisoning and anemia screening had another lady doing the very demanding work of going into the community and finding children who where at risk.  The lady, a very bossy and no nonsense person, was perfect for the job and had a drive to make sure the children in our town were safe.  I liked her and had great respect for her work.
That left our boss and me and that made four people who would work in this lab.
The lab director was brilliant, extremely knowledgably in microbiology, genetics and immunology and he taught classes at the nearby branch of the University of Connecticut in those subjects.  He left a state job in the laboratory in Hartford, just to get this lab started.  He was well respected by every person i every met who worked for the state of Connecticut.
He had little water chemistry experience and that is where i fit in.
I began in October, just after the busy Summer season and in someway it was very good that things slowed down, there was so much to learn!
The water testing performed by the lab were primarily on water brought in by another section of the health department, the environmental health section, whose personnel where all certified by the state of Connecticut as Registered Sanitarians or RS for short.
These were mostly new wells and the tests that we performed in the lab were very simple, dipstick and colorimetric tests.  The chemicals used were mostly pre-packaged in the amount needed for a single test and many tests used a hand held color wheel to determine how much of something was in the sample.
There was a hierarchy of what tests were performed meaning that if something was elevated something else would be tested for, but only if the first test came back elevated.
A good example of this were the staining metals, iron and manganese would only be tested for if color or turbidity were elevated.
According to the lab director, we were suppose to be using methods described in a "bible" of water testing called "Standard Methods", but the practice when i first came was much simpler than this.
An example was sodium, it was only tested if the amount of chloride in the water sample was over a certain limit and sodium was not tested, rather it was calculated using a simple formula.  There was another formula to use if the sample had a treatment unit, but neither were essentially accurate.
I was invited to change all of this.
On occasions, a home owner with a well would show up and ask to have their water checked.  Most of the time it was only for "potability", which meant a bacteriological test for a group of organisms called total coliforms.  If you had any, the water was considered not potable, or not drinkable and the home owner was told they should contact a well person to fix the problem.
This test i had performed in other jobs and was not unfamiliar to me, but then came other microbiological tests.
For the summer, the lab tested the quality of the water at the beaches and this was beginning to take me out of my comfort zone.
Then the environmental health people would bring sample that were suspected septic failures.
Then i was asked to test waters for the shellfish beds using an abstract microbiological technique called MPN (most probable number) using a multiple tube method.
I was really out of my comfort zone.
My extra courses in college in biochemistry, did not prepare me for the field of microbiology. 
The little bit of work that i had done previously, did not prepare me for all that i needed. 
I spent the first year and a half learning about media and general testing, i barely understood what the numbers meant.  By the busy summer time i was at least prepared, as a technician, to do the work required to monitor the public beaches and shellfish areas, but i was still unsure of what the results actually meant and even took some of my results to the health director when "fecal coliforms" out numbered "total coliforms" in one set of results.   He told me that they were different organisms, something i know now to be erroneous, but what did i know at this time?
I still had so much to learn, but learn i did and in my second year, i became more confident and had added three tests that had not previously been performed and changed several methods to more correct ones.
A few more home owners brought samples to the lab, this was unusual because our existence was not known to the general public.
Problem plagued the lab, money problems.  Grants bought people, and instruments, but there was no grant for water testing, this was the lab manager's vision for the future of the lab and so, without a grant, there was no money.
Without a grant, buying a new instrument was virtually impossible.  There were ways, but first step was to convince the laboratory director that it was worth the effort to push something through the budgetary process.
I had not learned this skill and did not make much headway on things i thought should be changed. 
I was losing ambition and becoming frustrated.
Because of this and other factors, in my third year, during the slow time in the Winter, i became bored.
Perhaps it was a combination of things for i believe i also became complacent.
It is one of my complaints about civil service jobs, if you do not want to work, you can get by doing just enough.  Now through out my career, i have heard many people call civil service employees lazy, i was not because i had another part time job and was volunteering the rest of my waking time at a local shelter.  I am even unsure that other workers are lazy, but certainly many are uninspired.
At the end of my second year I was giving up and losing my fire to find out "what if" and the lack of funding to get the equipment i thought we needed was also grating on my nerves.
It was because of all these factors that i allowed myself to be only the lab technician and was doing things by rote.
During my boss's vacation, I played.


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