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Cover Story

November 1, 2010
Volume 88, Number 44
pp. 43 - 45

Making Labs Work Magically Well

Lab and stockroom managers have essential jobs with diverse responsibilities

Stu Borman

FILLING A NEED Senior chemistry major Catharine Seeley (left) and Molinelli fill a 400-MHz NMR instrument with liquid nitrogen. Russ Selzer
FILLING A NEED Senior chemistry major Catharine Seeley (left) and Molinelli fill a 400-MHz NMR instrument with liquid nitrogen.
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Rich Molinelli, who has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, ran a research lab at a major chemical company, founded a business in regulatory and chemical safety consulting, and was a scientific employment recruiter. But he now manages chemistry department labs and storerooms at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU), Danbury, and says, "I've never had a job in science that I've enjoyed as much as this one, nor have any of my previous positions given me the satisfaction this one does."

Managing a lab may not be the first job undergraduate and graduate chemistry students think of when planning their future careers. But lab management is a potentially rewarding profession that's essential to the proper operation of thousands of scientific facilities worldwide. As such, it's an alternative career that perhaps warrants more careful consideration.

"Our profession is not that well-known," says Carol Bowman, science lab facilities director at Ohio State University, in Marion. "Kids just show up at labs, supplies are magically there, and after they leave the lab, it's magically cleaned up. We're like house-elves at Hogwarts." But without lab managers, those facilities would not be nearly as safe and easy to use as they are now.

In addition to her university job, Bowman is also president of the National Association of Scientific Materials Managers (NAOSMM), a professional organization of lab and stockroom managers. "Lab manager is a catchall title," she explains. "The core responsibilities of chemistry lab and stockroom managers are negotiating materials contracts and ordering, receiving, storing, inventorying, and distributing chemical supplies."

However, in academia, "your responsibilities depend on how big your university is, how many people it employs, how many students run through the labs—and what your employer can get you to do without having to pay somebody else," she says, laughing.

"The bigger the school, the bigger the job," Bowman says. At large institutions such as major research universities, lab managers typically have Ph.D.s in chemistry—"or perhaps a master's degree and lots of experience." They may also be the university's environmental health and safety (EHS) director or chemical hygiene officer—in charge of rules and regulations relating to chemicals and waste—and they may participate in teaching and research as well.

"Kids just show up at labs, supplies are magically there, and after they leave the lab, it's magically cleaned up. We're like house-elves at Hogwarts."

At smaller academic institutions, some lab managers have no college degree, most have bachelor's degrees, about one-third have master's degrees, and only a few have Ph.D.s. The range of responsibilities is similar for small and large institutions, Bowman says. Lab managers also work in industry and government.

A major part of lab management is purchasing supplies and equipment, and doing that job well requires skill. In working with vendors, "after first searching for the lowest prices, you have to be smart enough to negotiate by asking the right questions, such as about discounts for academia and possible waivers on shipping charges," Molinelli says. "I do everything in my power to save money for the WCSU chemistry department. I reduce expenditures here tremendously by negotiating." In addition, "I deal with invoices and payments, keep records, and help maintain the department's budget," he says.

"When we get an allocation to buy anything over $1,000, I get quotes from vendors and often invite them in to pre­sent seminars and demonstrate the equipment," Molinelli says. "After professors decide which brand of equipment they want to purchase, I generate the purchase order. I then coordinate delivery, installation, and training, and I schedule and oversee required instrument maintenance."

At Chevron Phillips Chemical, in Baytown, Texas, analyst and chemical hygiene officer Raymond D. Tyler orders chemicals and supplies, manages the stockroom, runs analyses, and performs chemical safety duties. In his analytical work he uses gas chromatography, atomic absorption spectroscopy, and other techniques to check the quality of ethylene, propylene, and polyethylene produced at the facility. "The appeal of the job is its diversity," Tyler says.

Chemical safety is a paramount concern of all chemical lab and stockroom managers. For Tyler, being a chemical hygiene officer involves managing overall laboratory safety—such as maintaining eye washes and fume hoods and evaluating the safety of newly ordered chemicals.

At Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, "Our chemicals are kept in safety cabinets, bulk solvents are isolated in separate rooms, and safety carriers"—spill- and breakage-resistant rubber buckets—"are required to transport 4-L solvent bottles," chemistry storeroom manager Paulette Lynch says. "It's a safer atmosphere now compared to 30 years ago," when lab safety standards were less rigorous, she says.

INDISPENSABLE ROLE Bowman pours a dye solution in the Ohio State chemistry lab. Wayne Rowe
INDISPENSABLE ROLE Bowman pours a dye solution in the Ohio State chemistry lab.

In addition, chemical inventory is generally much more automated and carefully controlled today than it was in earlier years, Lynch notes. "When I first started at Vanderbilt, the inventory was kept on index cards in metal files," she says. "When we sold a bottle of acetone, we went in and deducted it from the total on the card, and if we ordered something, we would indicate that manually, too.

"Now we're totally computerized, with a bar-code system, and our inventory system creates chemical orders for us automatically on a daily basis," she says. "We bar code and track approximately 7,000 chemicals annually. I acquired the information for our bar-coding and tracking system while attending a NAOSMM conference, and we purchased the system at a later date."

Every chemical purchased at WCSU is also recorded in an online inventory system. "I enter comprehensive data on all chemicals into a database and apply a sticker with a bar code and four-digit number on every bottle, can, drum, cylinder, or other container," Molinelli says. "We can then locate any given chemical at any given time." To ensure accuracy, empty containers are removed from the database and all containers are scanned and reinventoried once a year.

For Catherine Anzick, lab manager at the National Institutes of Health Chemical Genomics Center (NCGC), managing supplies of chemical reagents and common stock items such as pipettes and cell-culture flasks is one of her core responsibilities. "Taking inventory is so important," she says—so the facility doesn't run out of 1,536-well plates for high-throughput-screening assays, for example. "There are certain items that have to be in stock at all times" or the lab's highly efficient operations could come to a screeching halt, she says.

In addition, Anzick helps manage chemical safety at NCGC. She's on the NIH safety committee, attends monthly safety meetings, and is responsible for managing chemical wastes at the lab, a role for which she received specialized training at NIH.

Molinelli and Bowman are also responsible for chemical hygiene at their facilities. "I maintain hazardous waste containers and accumulation areas in the chemistry department, train student workers and adjunct faculty in our safety and waste procedures, and serve as a liaison with the university's EHS department, which removes wastes for disposal," Molinelli says.

The main campus of Ohio State, in Columbus, "has a huge EHS department," Bowman says, but the Marion campus where she works is 50 miles away, "so the responsibility for day-to-day hazardous waste management falls to me. Somebody comes from Columbus to pick up our hazardous waste, but I do have to segregate my chemicals and know the storage rules."

Some lab and stockroom managers find their way into the profession early in their careers, but lab management wasn't initially on Bowman's radar screen. "I have a bachelor's degree in science education, with minors in biology, chemistry, physics, and geology," she says. While working as a high school chemistry and physics teacher, a lab manager position at Ohio State opened up, and she took it because it had a flexible schedule, which she needed at the time to meet family needs. "I agreed to stay three years, and I've now been here 12," she says. "I love it now that I'm here, but it's not a career I thought of doing initially."

Lynch doesn't have a chemistry degree but has been chemistry storeroom manager at Vanderbilt for 38 years. "Through the years, I acquired the knowledge I needed and became very familiar with chemistry apparatus, chemicals, and equipment," she says. "My previous position was placing orders and reconciling ledgers for the physics department, and those duties carried over into my position in the chemistry storeroom."

SAFETY FIRST Lynch uses a safety carrier to move a bottle of acid from Vanderbilt University's chemistry storeroom. Heather Watkins/Vanderbilt U
SAFETY FIRST Lynch uses a safety carrier to move a bottle of acid from Vanderbilt University's chemistry storeroom.

Anzick doesn't have a bachelor's degree. She got her lab management position at NCGC after having been a trainer at Victoria's Secret and a manager at a Sprint call center, among other jobs. She is grateful for the lab management opportunity that was offered her, has learned on the job, and has worked hard to succeed in a profession for which she originally had no specific training. At press time, she was just about to be promoted to an administrative position at NCGC, in which she will no longer manage the laboratory directly but will retain her responsibilities for equipment inventory, travel authorizations, scheduling meetings, and procuring supplies. Her strategy for success: "When you're really organized, it just works," she says.

Tyler, who has a B.S. degree in biology, got a job in a metallurgical lab when he got out of college, and that experience helped him get his current job in 1976. The position evolved over time, and in 2001 he became a chemical hygiene officer—a specialist in "procuring chemicals, managing them, and disposing of them in a safe manner," he says. He earned that additional role by taking a course on chemical hygiene offered by the Laboratory Safety Institute, in Natick, Mass., and then passing a qualifying test given by the National Registry of Certified Chemists, in Arlington, Va.

Ideal preparation for a career in lab or stockroom management, Molinelli advises, is "a chemistry degree, a willingness to get involved in managing money and budgets, and a background in EHS."

Experience in helping run a lab while you're a student can be extremely helpful in landing a permanent lab or stockroom management position. Bowman says she knows "a young person who had been a stockroom manager for a couple of years while getting her bachelor's degree in chemistry. After getting her degree, she decided, 'This is what I want to do for a career,' and she is now a lab manager."

Bowman points out that "salaries depend on your degree, the size of your university, number of years of service, and other factors." Most lab and stockroom managers who are members of NAOSMM earn $40,000 to $80,000 per year, she says. Salaries of more than $100,000 per year are not uncommon for Ph.D.-level personnel, for lab managers at larger institutions, and for those who are also EHS specialists.

The rewards of lab and stockroom management are often more than just monetary, however, because many of these jobs are diversified, intellectually stimulating, and people-oriented. "I love being of assistance—helping students order research chemicals, giving them advice about their research, providing safety training, and assisting them with their résumés," Molinelli says. "I appreciate being able to help the faculty in whatever ways they might need me. And this semester, I'm teaching two freshman general chemistry labs. I've got the perfect job here."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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