Learning Lab: Protecting water, continuing education major focuses of this facility
As a premed student at West Texas A&M University, Josie Longoria was like many citizens of her region—she wasn't aware just how much the environment, especially water, affects human health. An environmental chemistry class changed that … and her career path.
“The professor had us write a paper on an environmental chemical and how it affected human health,” she said. “I was completely intrigued because my paper was on dioxins, and after that I was hooked. I appreciated the environmental sciences and didn’t realize how much the environment truly affects our health.”
Now the director of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s (GBRA) Regional Laboratory (Seguin, TX), Longoria and her staff are responsible for protecting the health of the water in the ten-county area they serve. It seems fitting that it was in the classroom that Longoria first became interested in the field since the lab also acts as a classroom of sorts, bringing key knowledge to area students and residents about just how important safe water is.
The GBRA’s facility, a National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Congress (NELAC)-accredited lab for water and wastewater in the region, does analysis for a variety of customers. The lab also partners with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for the Clean Rivers Program (CRP) and manages a number of quality assurance projects.
“We analyze specific sites throughout the river basin and analyze for conventionals—such as anions, nutrients, etc., in order to check the ‘health’ of the river every month,” she explained about the Clean Rivers Program.
GBRA’s regional lab performs bioassessments as well, which involve looking at the entire function of the river, not just the chemistry of the water, Longoria said. That work involves investigating riparian function and the existing fish and benthics in the river.
Apart from those programs, the lab is kept busy helping just about anyone in their area who deals with water, including assisting other river authorities, helping with pre-industrial sampling for local industries, assisting five water treatment plants and 11 wastewater plants, doing analysis for customers outside their ten-county area, and even serving the general public.
“We help them with their water quality analytical needs and try to assist them in solving any problems they may have with an aesthetic or questionable water situation,” Longoria explained, adding that some citizens have UV systems or other nonconventional treatment systems. “They can walk in and bring us their samples from well water that has been treated or not treated with chlorination.” She says the most popular tests for the samples brought in by the average citizen are tests for bacteria, nitrates, and hardness.
The lab, created in 1973, also assists the general public through the education programs it’s involved in. For example, as a mentor for the Hutton Fisheries program run by the American Fisheries Society, the lab takes in one or two high school students over the summer.
“They would come in and we would train them and let them see what we do here to get them interested in our line of work,” Longoria said of the program. “It’s been a really excellent opportunity for us and for students in the area.”
In addition, the lab helps local science fair students from middle school to high school levels; offers tours for schools, teachers, and civic organizations; and runs seminars and training for colleges and universities in the area.
“I’m teaching at some of the local colleges here on weekends,” said Longoria, who has 21 years of experience in the field. “We try to help out when we can and represent the environmental sciences.”
Like many labs today, the GBRA regional lab does an incredible amount of work with a small staff—12, in the case of Longoria’s facility. That group, made up of both lab and water quality staff, deals with a workload of over 1,000 samples a month, on average.
“I have the best crew,” Longoria said of her team. “I’m biased, of course, but I think they’re great.”
Lab workers used to be accepted straight out of high school, but since it has been required that labs be NELAC-accredited by 2008 in order to submit their data to the TCEQ , employees now need to have a specific number of college hours in chemistry or microbiology. There is more in-depth record keeping, quality control, and defensible data than there was in the past, meaning more training, Longoria added.
“They have to give a demonstration of analyst capability before they analyze anything in the laboratory,” she said. That initial demonstration is followed up by yearly demonstrations of ability, which are kept on file.
While educating those outside the lab is a big part of its purpose, the lab also supports continuing education for its own employees, with independent training in the lab, which is sometimes supported by a vendor, or by sending employees to seminars and training offered by a variety of organizations outside the lab.
“We also support continuing education at the collegiate level,” Longoria said. “If somebody’s interested in getting a second degree, or maybe they have an associate’s degree and want to get an actual four-year degree or their master’s, we have a program here that encourages that, and we have some financial assistance here at GBRA.”
Longoria, who also acts as the lab’s technical director and quality assurance officer designee, is responsible for taking care of the day-to-day operations of the lab, instrument wear and tear, equipment purchases, and helping resolve any issues staff come across in their daily work. She also handles customer service and the lab’s budget, along with maintaining the TNI (The NELAC Institute) requirements and accreditation status of the lab.
She has a number of strategies for motivating the team, whether that’s going on ice cream runs to the Dairy Queen right next to the lab on sweltering hot days or letting staff off a bit early on Fridays.
“I’ll ‘woman the fort’ while everybody goes home a little early,” she said. “In Texas, sometimes it’ll be three numbers up there for the temperature … the temperature is maintained in the lab, but we still know how hot it is outside, so we’ll do ice cream runs.”
Good work is also noted on performance reviews, and staff are recognized when they’ve achieved a milestone or completed a project.
Longoria, currently in her twelfth year working at the lab, adds that she encourages input from all team members and does generational training to figure out what makes each member of her staff tick.
“My staff has several generations covered, so I try to be aware of what is important to each generation,” she said.
Powering through the challenges
It’s a good thing Longoria has such a strong team because each day in the lab brings new challenges.
“I don’t believe there is a typical day in a laboratory,” she said of day-to-day life in the lab. However, she added that there are typical duties in her lab, such as meeting customers’ needs, maintaining turnaround and sample hold times for different parameter and sample types, managing quality assurance and quality control, managing employees and equipment, and planning for equipment servicing, service contracts, or software updates.
One obstacle they deal with is instrument failures.
“Those are the times where I get a right turn every now and again,” Longoria said. “Every manager knows that if you have everything purring in your lab, that’s the best day; you wish every day was that way.”
But even when faced with an instrument failure, the regional lab still gets its customers their results, as they have a number of qualified subcontracted labs they use when their own equipment isn’t cooperating.
“If something does go wrong here, [customers] don’t need to know about it,” she said. “They don’t care about it. They want their results. The greatest challenge, if we can’t get something up and running here, is to make sure we have a qualified subcontracted lab lined up, willing and ready, and also NELAC-accredited.”
An upcoming challenge is moving over to a new LIMS. Currently the GBRA lab is using an in-housedeveloped system and is in the process of reviewing various LIMS companies.
“Updating our LIMS and transitioning to a new LIMS are going to be difficult tasks,” Longoria said. “It’s going to be tough, but it’s time, and we’re ready for it.”
Keeping an open mind and getting buy-in and advice from everyone on the team are the main ways Longoria deals with those changes and difficulties.
“My title is ‘director’—that does not mean that I’m a dictator,” she said. “I get buy-in from my staff, and I get a lot of feedback from them and external sources as well.”
As far as overall changes in the industry, Longoria said automation, which used to be frowned upon, is now the thing to do, and software is a lot more powerful and easy to use. On the wet chemistry side, Longoria said in particular the optical luminescence probes now available for BOD (biological oxygen demand) tests have been a big help to her lab, as they are easier to use and last longer.
“I know a lot of laboratories are reluctant to change, but it’s worth a try,” she said. “We won’t go back now. It seems so minimal in the world that we live in, but it’s helped us become more efficient.”
Apart from the TNI accreditation requirement, the need for better documentation through the Title 21 CFR Part 11 requirements has been another key regulatory change for environmental science labs, but Longoria sees these as improvements rather than hindrances, as they have enhanced organization in the lab.
“Initially a lot of lab folks like myself did not appreciate it, just because of the tremendous effort,” she said of the need for TNI accreditation. “However, in hindsight, I feel the TNI standard has made labs better, so I’m thankful for it now.”
One thing likely to affect the GBRA lab in the future is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun talks about testing for nutrient levels in bays and estuaries, something that will be important for Longoria’s lab, as its ten-county region ends in San Antonio Bay. In preparation for that change, the lab is partnering with the TCEQ to look into methodologies that can handle high-salinity samples.
“The most interesting thing for me right now is being able to work with the TCEQ to try to find methods that are going to benefit us in finding what the nutrient levels are in bays and estuaries,” Longoria said.
Even with all those changes ahead and having worked in the field for over two decades, Longoria remains passionate about her work, enjoying the fact that she and her staff play a key role in protecting the water people drink, wash with, and play in.
“I have really appreciated my twelve years here and have learned a tremendous amount of valuable environmental laboratory information,” she said. “GBRA is just a great place to learn, so I continue to learn and am encouraged by the mission that GBRA stands for. I still love working for GBRA, and I still love this field.”
- 2 total organic carbon systems made by Teledyne Tekmar (Phoenix 8000 and Fusion)
- 2 ion chromatography units (ICS-1000 from Dionex, now Thermo Scientific Dionex, and an 881 Metrohm IC)
- 1 Konelab AquaKem 200 Analyzer—used for nutrient analysis TKN/ammonia and total phosphorus
- 1 GC-MS (Varian, now Aligent, 431-GC/210-MS)
- Several SCP Science blocks and distillation units
- Thermo Scientific spectrophotometer
- Several HACH meters and spectrophotometers