Highly skilled and motivated scientists and technicians are essential to this successful lab

Jason Todd is in the business of solving puzzles—in the laboratory. As a manager of the liquid chromatography lab and co manager of the gas chromatography lab at Polymer Solutions Incorporated (PSI) in Blacksburg, Virginia, he’s continually solving chemical and material mysteries.

“Some of the more interesting and exciting projects we have worked on over the years have involved testing the chemical composition of a product to understand the cause of failure, or to determine whether our customer’s competitor is infringing on a patent,” he says.

“Many of these projects become quite large in scope, and the testing is very detailed. We often have to be very creative in our analytical approach to these complex problems. It’s very rewarding when we find an answer that helps our customer.”

Polymer Solutions is an independent testing lab that provides highly customized analytical solutions to clients. The lab provides chemical analysis, physical tests, and research and development assistance, among other services.

“We have a large client base in the medical device and pharmaceutical, plastics and rubber, transportation, and consumer products industries,” Todd says. “The types of projects we work on can be categorized as failure analysis, material characterization, quality control, and competitor product analysis. The test methods used by PSI measure the material properties or chemical composition of a sample.”

Lab structure

Polymer Solutions occupies about 15,000 square feet of space. Within the company campus there are four labs: the applied chemistry and spectroscopy laboratory; the thermal, physical, and microscopy laboratory; the gas chromatography laboratory; and the liquid chromatography laboratory. The two labs—liquid chromatography and gas chromatography—that Todd manages and co manages occupy approximately 1,500 square feet of space and have future plans for expansion.

The main techniques performed in the gas chromatography laboratory are gas chromatography (GC) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). In the liquid chromatography laboratory, specialists focus on highperformance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and gel permeation chromatography (GPC).

“In the liquid chromatography lab we do a lot of GPC work, which involves measuring the molecular weight distributions of polymer samples,” explains Todd. “We use HPLC, GC, and GC-MS to test polymer samples for additives such as antioxidants and light stabilizers, as well as for residual monomers, residual solvents, and other impurities. We perform extractables and leachables testing on plastics that are used in implantable medical devices and packaging for drug products.”

“Most of this testing is highly customized, and we often develop and validate test methods to meet the customer’s needs,” he adds.

The work for both labs is performed by a team of seven, with room for another in the gas chromatography lab. Most of the bench chemists and technicians in the labs have earned undergraduate degrees in chemistry or biology. Todd has a bachelor of science in chemical engineering and a master of science in wood science and forest products, with extensive coursework in polymer chemistry. Many of the other lab managers in the organization also have completed courses in the polymer science field.

With the proper expertise and lab structure, the company manages to provide quality service to hundreds of clients each year.

“We have a very flat organizational structure that promotes teamwork and collaboration at all levels,” Todd says. “The people in the LC lab report directly to me, and I report directly to the founder and CEO of the company, Jim Rancourt, Ph.D.”

Travis Powell (front) and Katie England (back) setting up the HPLC instruments for analysis of client samples.  

Because of a current vacancy in the gas chromatography lab, Todd helps co manage the lab with a project manager. The duo then report to company CEO Rancourt.

“We really have to support each other to deal with our challenging and ever-changing workload,” he says.

“A lot of my time is spent as a technical consultant, advising the LC and GC lab staff on method development and troubleshooting instruments and methods,” Todd adds. “I approve some of the GPC, HPLC, and GC data before it is reported to our customers and also write or edit many reports.”

Additionally, Todd spends a good portion of his time consulting with customers—answering questions they have about work that his team has performed on a current project or coming up with a plan for a future project.

“There’s also a lot of documentation to draft, edit, and approve for our quality system, including test method procedures, method validation protocols and reports, and equipment qualifications,” he says.

Although project sizes vary considerably, Todd estimates his teams process a few hundred samples each month. However, smaller sample sets of fewer than ten are not uncommon.

“We’re not a high-throughput lab such as an environmental or medical lab,” he says. “We perform mostly customized methods that require a lot of time to set up and a lot of attention to detail.”

Inventory, hiring, and maintenance

In order to keep operations running smoothly, each of the four labs monitors its own inventory of critical supplies. Each week the managers of the labs provide an inventory list to the company’s lab support department. For general lab supplies, the lab support department maintains inventory for all the company’s labs.

To maintain nearly all major instruments used in the laboratory, Polymer Solutions utilizes service contracts with equipment vendors. Additionally, most instruments undergo annual preventive maintenance by the manufacturers. However, the daily upkeep of machines is left to the staff.

“Our lab technicians perform a lot of day-to-day maintenance such as ion source cleaning on mass spectrometers and HPLC pump seal and check valve replacement,” Todd says.

“Because most of our projects are very short duration—two weeks or less—and we can’t afford a lot of downtime, we do a lot of troubleshooting and simple repairs ourselves, with phone support from the vendor,” he adds. “If it turns out to be a more involved repair than we can handle ourselves, at least the service engineer will have some idea of what parts are needed when arriving for the repair.”

Additionally, to ensure that data produced in the lab is valid, the lab equipment needs to be qualified. This is especially important for Polymer Solutions because of the work they conduct for their Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-regulated clients.

“We do most of the equipment qualifications ourselves, because it allows us to customize the operational qualification (OQ) and performance qualification (PQ) to fit our specific requirements and allows a more consistent approach to qualification within our organization,” Todd explains. OQ and PQ are performed to show that a piece of equipment functions properly in its installed environment and is suitable for its intended use.

With so much to do and such a small staff, each person becomes an important part of running the laboratory. For this reason the company takes great care when looking for new staff members. Each lab manager carefully reviews resumes, conducts interviews, and with support from human resources is responsible for finding a good fit for the individual lab.

“This field is very specialized,” Todd says. “Highly skilled and motivated scientists and technicians are the key to a successful laboratory. Hire the right people and invest in appropriate training and education—you may be able to find someone who is experienced in chromatography, for example, but may not necessarily have a background in polymer science as well. Make sure your workers understand the science behind what they are doing and why their work is important to the client. Insist on high standards of quality for the work product that is sent to your clients.”

Once the company finds the right people, it’s important to ensure that they are happy working at the company. Todd and other managers achieve this goal by providing incentives to their staff through pay increases and promotions to recognize performance and growth. The company also provides profit sharing in the form of bonuses to its employees.

A collaborative meeting in the conference room at Polymer Solutions.

“We also try to make PSI a fun place to work by encouraging participation in fun activities,” Todd says. “For example, each year we celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Most of the staff dress up as pirates and participate in pirate-themed contests, including a treasure hunt.”

Challenges

Workload within the individual labs of Polymer Solutions is highly variable. This makes the work environment quite fast-paced and unpredictable. Often the staff can’t calculate how much time is required to complete many of the highly customized analyses.

“We can never really predict or control the workload for a specific lab or a specific instrument,” Todd says. “Sometimes we will have a very quiet week with very few samples coming in for testing, and the next week we’ll get buried by an avalanche of samples.

“Most of our projects are two weeks in duration, so there’s not much flexibility in scheduling people and equipment to complete the testing on time,” he adds. “It is a real challenge maintaining enough excess capacity in people and equipment to handle the upswings in workload while not overstaffing and becoming unprofitable as a result.”

One way to meet this challenge is to continually assess and allocate the assets available to the company at large.

“We often share resources between labs when one area is very busy, which helps a lot,” Todd says. “The ability to share resources is a result of intentional cross-training. Lately it seems everyone is very busy all the time.”

Another big challenge for the labs has been establishing the quality control systems and documentation that are required for the lab’s work on behalf of FDA-regulated clients. To meet this challenge, Todd and his staff utilize all resources available to them.

“We have gotten help from ex-FDA consultants, attended training courses on GMP compliance, learned from being audited by some of our clients, and put in a lot of hard work over the past few years,” he says.

The challenges of the job are also alleviated by promoting skills that allow information to travel quickly and clearly— both within the lab and between the lab and clients.

Jason Todd, manager of the liquid chromatography lab and co manager of the gas chromatography lab at Polymer Solutions Inc.

“Communication is essential,” Todd says. “We have to really understand our client’s needs, and that information has to get communicated to the person who is actually doing the testing. The more we know about why we’re doing the testing, the more we can help the client.

“Communication is also very important when things don’t go exactly as planned in the lab and we have to try a different approach to solve a challenging analytical problem. We want to make sure the client is on the same page if we have to deviate from the original plan.”

The challenges and the environment, however, are precisely the reasons Todd enjoys his position as manager.

“The great people I work with and the customers we work for, as well as the wide variety of challenging analytical projects” make the job easy to like.

Additionally, the overarching goal of the company allows Todd and his staff to keep an eye on the finish line—a target whose results could benefit many.

“We work for many companies that make products that improve peoples’ health or standard of living,” Todd says. “By helping our clients solve manufacturing issues or by helping them ensure consistent product quality, our work indirectly benefits the community on a national and international scale as well as locally

“We benefit the local community by providing stable, high-quality jobs,” Todd says. “We have two great schools in our immediate area, Virginia Tech and Radford University, and our proximity allows some students to remain in the community after they graduate.”