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Quantitative Lab Skills for the Modern Analyst

Annie Pathiparampil is an analytical chemist at Chevron Energy Technology Company in Richmond, California. At her work, her main focus area is in classical wet chemistry methods, including ion chromatography.

Rachel Muenz

Q: What does your lab/organization do?

A: We provide technical support for various refined or related products in a safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible manner. We keep up with the best and most efficient technologies that are available and adapt them to meet our needs.

Q: What are the main analytical technologies you use? What are they used for?

A: Our labs use a wide range of instrumentation, from basic titrators to hyphenated instrumentation. On a routine basis, instruments may be used for testing products to see whether they meet specifications for fuels or related products using established industry-standard methods of organizations like ASTM. Most of the nonroutine use is for method development or problem solving.

Q: What are the main quantitative lab skills that you use?

A: The main quantitative analyses that we conduct in our lab include techniques such as volumetric, gravimetric, potentiometric, thermometric, coulometric, spectroscopic, and chromatographic analysis. In this profession, it is important that the analysts plan out their work and be very organized, focused, detail-oriented, and safety-conscious.

Q: What are the key challenges you face in your analyses?

A: There are times when it is difficult to obtain a homogeneous or representative sample; there will be difficulty solubilizing samples in the solvents specified in the method. For example, in titrations, lack of solubility can result in electrode coating. Sample matrix can be a challenge in various techniques. This will require further studies to resolve the issues. Another challenge we face is discrepancy or lack of data correlation in different techniques. An occasional challenge can be that the details of the methods aren’t well documented in procedures, and consequently there will be difficulty comparing interlaboratory data.

Q: How do you deal with those challenges?

A: When you have challenges, a deep understanding of the method, including hands-on experience, will be very useful in troubleshooting to resolve issues. When the challenge is due to lack of experience, then one must use the resources available to educate oneself, including consultation with experts in the field. If the challenge is with analytical data, we look for referee methods to validate the procedure to better understand the precision and accuracy. In our industry, there are times when the methods are called defined methods, and therefore, the accuracy won’t be known. In this case, the analysis needs to be carried out following the procedure as written so that data obtained can be objectively compared with the established precision of the method.

Q: What key changes have you experienced in your lab/organization over the past few years?

A: There is extensive proliferation of computer-based calculations, and at times there can be a lack of deeper understanding of the subject. Another modern trend is for organizations to be lean and reduce support staff. This can result in chemists having to take on additional tasks, which will limit the time for their primary responsibilities.

Q: What advice do you have for other laboratory professionals or managers who are either new to quantitative research or would like to refresh their skills?

A: The laboratory professional needs to be technically proficient. It is very important to know the capabilities and limitations of analytical instruments. The analyst needs to understand the chemistry, as everything flows from the basics. When you understand the basics, it will be easy to address challenges or carry out difficult tasks.

Q: Did you have anything else you want to add on this subject?

A: In any career, it is very important to have strong technical skills and a deeper understanding of the subject. At the same time, it is also crucial that you have good soft skills, including good work habits. When you work as a team, team dynamics are very important for the advancement of the team. Therefore, during the interview process, we make a lot of effort to understand the individual. Another important aspect of career advancement is finding experienced mentors who are willing to work with you and guide you.