To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Received my own PE today. I haven't discussed it with my boss but it's very nice. I told her so and she was surprised because she thought there might be too many negative statements. Well, there are some, but they're fairly accurate. I get flustered when I'm trying to multitask and my priorities get changed. I need to work on getting paperwork done in a timely fashion. Overall it is very positive. She notes that I am "aggressive" in improving efficiency in my department using new technology as it becomes available, and that's true, and it's the thing I hoped she would mention.

There's a thing that happened with another boss at another company about 15 years ago.

My job at that company was to analyze environmental samples (soil and water) for pesticides by GC/ECD. Another chemist analyzed environmental samples for semivolatiles by GC/MS, which is more complex and sophisticated. (And nothing like what one might see on CSI.) His instrument went kablooey, and while it was being repaired the boss elected to lease an instrument from a different manufacturer, one that had different mass spec technology and whose software was still in beta-test stage. And he asked me to oversee this other chemist (who was older and much better paid than I) in his task of getting his work caught up on this thing, because he was the most scattered and unfocused person you can imagine when faced with a bunch of work. So I did. He and I worked 11- or 12-hour days, 6 days a week, for about a month, and got his stuff caught up. Actually, frequently I was working while he napped, but whatever. F was only a toddler then, and she acted out a bit because she wasn't seeing enough of her mommy. I felt very bad about that. But we got it done and got back to a regular schedule.

A couple of months later, F got sick. She had pneumonia, and I stayed at home with her for one week. When I got back, my boss told me that I didn't have a week's worth of vacation, having only been there a year and having taken a day here and there, and that I would have to make up my time. What about all that time I spent running an analysis that wasn't even my analysis? That didn't count, because it was before. This had to be after. Maybe I could come in and work with the midnight-shift techs on their extraction techniques or something. Well, I did that already as needed, it was part of my job. But no one kept track of my time, because I was exempt. It seemed to me that when the company needed me, the clock never ticked, but when I needed something, suddenly that clock started ticking away.

I went home that afternoon and I was so angry that I walked past my husband and daughter, straight upstairs, and lay facedown on the bed. I was like that cartoon of the angriest dog in the world. I couldn't even think, I was so mad. Finally I did start thinking, and I thought that I needed to find some way of dealing with the situation that wouldn't make me feel like I was being exploited. I needed to satisfy my boss that my time was made up, but it needed to benefit me, career-wise. Otherwise I would be so angry and resentful that it would make me sick. Working with the midnight-shift techs wouldn't do that because it was already my job. I thought, lying facedown there on the bed, about trying to work with the engineers, or the finance people, but I couldn't think of a way to initiate that.

Finally I thought about our lab manager, Dr. Marks. He didn't actually manage very much; he was kind of a chemist emeritus. He did a lot of special projects for the parent company. I knew he was in the midst of one project that wasn't going very well. Lying on the bed facedown, I thought about that project. Dr. Marks was trying to analyze benzyl chloride for benzene contamination. The problem he was having was due to the fact that benzyl chloride is very corrosive, so that he couldn't analyze it by purge-and-trap like one normally would. It ate the sparge needle. He was trying to analyze it using neat injections on GC/FID and not having much luck. I wondered if Dr. Marks had thought about codistillation, and lying facedown on the bed, I reviewed how that would work and thought about whether we had the glassware. I thought we did.

I got up off the bed and went downstairs. My husband eyed me cautiously because he knew something was wrong. He was appropriately indignant when I told him what my boss had said, but I was OK by then because I had a plan.

So the next morning after I found the glassware and looked up some boiling points I went into Dr. Marks' office and asked him how his project was going. He happily told me that he was having a lot of problems getting it to work. I asked him if he'd thought of trying codistillation. He was intrigued, so I told him how I thought it would work. Benzene boils below the boiling point of water, and benzyl chloride boils above the boiling point of water. So you would put some water in a boiling flask and a measured amount of benzyl chloride, and a measured amount (10 mL) of some solvent that boils above the boiling point of benzene but below that of water. Ideally this would be a solvent that doesn't respond well on FID, like a chlorinated solvent. You heat the this mixture until it starts to boil. The condenser directs the condensate into a graduated tube with a stopcock at the bottom. As the temperature in the boiling flask rises, the benzene evaporates first, and then the solvent, and then the water. The vapor goes into the condenser and condenses, and the solvent washes the benzene into the collection tube. When you've collected the whole 10 mL of solvent and a few drops of water for good measure, you drain the condensate. The benzyl chloride should all stay behind in the boiling flask. The condensate, which consists of the solvent you picked out with whatever benzene was in the sample dissolved in it, is what you analyze by GC/FID. I ended up telling him that my boss wanted me to make up my time that I was out with F, that he wanted me to work with the midnight crew, but I would rather work with him. Dr. Marks was cool with that. When the boss got there I was still so irritated that I could barely look at him. I told him I was going to work with Dr. Marks. In a friendly way, he asked me to sit down and tell him about it. He thought it sounded fine and just asked me to keep up with my hours.

Dr. Marks had about 30 samples of benzyl chloride, stored in a hood because the stuff actually ate the phenolic caps off the bottles. It was pretty nasty but I set my apparatus up next to the hood at the end of the day and went to work. And my method worked like a dream. I ran some reagent blanks and spikes, and some benzyl chloride replicates and spikes, and got perfect recoveries and great reproducibility. Once I had validated my method, I ran all the samples. I tabulated my data and put my name on it, which a former boss had told me one should always do, and organized all my stuff, gave it to Dr. Marks, and put the glassware away. And then my boss told me that I didn't have to turn in my hours, that I had been keeping track of. Nobody cared about that. He certainly didn't. Then what was that all about?

I thought all of that was over, but a few weeks later my boss called me into his office. It seemed that the corporate people had some kind of crisis, they were in a big hurry for some analytical work, and they needed Dr. Marks to do it right away. My boss told him that Dr. Marks was out, sick. Then have Laura do it, they said. My boss was fairly startled because I was actually the newest chemist and there were people with lots more seniority than me. But Dr. Marks had credited me when he used my data to report to them about the benzyl chloride. "You did yourself a favor when you worked with him on that benzyl chloride project," he said. Fortunately, what they wanted was very easy to do. They wanted Dr. Marks to repeat my work when he got back, and he told me that he got the very same results.

So when Dr. Marks retired, and subsequently my boss left the company, I was promoted to supervisor in the department. And I got to do lots of fun and interesting projects over the years. I'd still be happily working for that company except that after we remediated all of their hazardous waste sites, and with the worldwide downturn in the chemical industry in the 1990's they weren't making money, they had to cut the lab loose.

But that's my story about how I was the angriest dog in the world about a situation that I thought was very unfair and not nice at all, and it became a positive thing for me.

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