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On-the-Job Training for Analytical Instruments

Associate editor Rachel Muenz speaks to Elaine M. Ruzycki and Beth Bernhardt of the Natural Resources Research Institute's Central Analytical Lab at the University of Minnesota-Duluth

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Elaine M. Ruzycki is the lab manager of the Central Analytical Lab in the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, which provides analytical and field research support and consultation services to the NRRI and other scientists at the university, as well as to local, state, tribal, and federal agencies and to private businesses and commercial laboratories. She holds a BS in biology from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in water resources science from the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include lake and stream water quality assessment, management, and restoration; phytoplankton ecology; and algal physiology, taxonomy, and community composition.

Beth Bernhardt is a laboratory technician at the NRRI’s Central Analytical Lab. She holds a BA in biology, environmental studies, from Lawrence University and an MS in water resources science, limnology and oceanography track, from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Her research interests center on the ecological impacts of climate change on the aquatic and terrestrial systems of northern Minnesota, including the effects on carbon and nutrient cycling and native species community composition.

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Q: What does your lab do?

Elaine Ruzycki: We mostly do surface water analyses, so [we focus on] the lakes and streams in northern Minnesota. We test for low-level N [nitrogen] and P [phosphorous] nutrients, chlorophyll, and [also for] some anions, sulphates, silica, and chlorides. We do other tests occasionally, but that’s what we’re testing for on a day-to-day basis. Our lab is somewhat unique in that we do both the field sample collection and the lab analyses. Most of our projects right now involve monitoring and water quality assessment, although we do have some projects where we support research here at the university.

Q: What key analytical instruments do you use and what are they used for?

ER: We primarily use a PerkinElmer [UV-Vis] spectrophotometer. Since we do low-level phosphorous, we tend to use that instrument and we run the analyses manually. We also have a new Lachat [Instruments] autoanalyzer that we obtained last year that we use for nitrogen, total nitrogen, ammonium, nitrate-nitrite, and sulfate and chloride analyses.

Beth is the one who primarily runs the Lachat; although all of us are essentially able to run every analysis that we do, as there are only three of us here full time. We also have other basic instruments like pH meters, so nothing highly technical.

Q: Do you have any students or part-time staff in the lab?

ER: During the semester we usually have one student, and then in the summer we like to have one or two students. We also have one part-time staff member who helps us in the field, basically for the spring, and then he goes onto another project in the summer.

Q: Does the workload ever get to be too much with just three full-time staff members?

ER: We have two projects with the state of Minnesota through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency—they’re the ones responsible for assessing the surface water quality across the state—and they contract with us and other groups to go out and collect samples. One project involves load monitoring where we go out and collect stream samples in the spring, so this time of year is generally busy.

Q: What sort of training is required for the instruments used?

ER: The thing with our group is that none of us are really chemists, most of us are trained as limnologists or have biology degrees, and so we’ve learned on the job. It’s pretty simple chemistry; we don’t do organic analyses, so it’s just basic inorganic quantitative analysis. We’ve learned how to develop standard curves and try to hit all our QA/QC [testing] parameters. So it’s been on-the-job training, more or less, for the past 25 years.

Q: What are the biggest challenges that you face with that training?

Beth Bernhardt: With the Lachat autoanalyzer, there are always things that go wrong where nobody has run into [the issue] before, so it’s just onthe- fly troubleshooting. Once you figure out the answer to the problem, then it goes more smoothly in the future, but sometimes, particularly with the Lachat, things do go wrong and it can be hard to figure out what needs to be fixed, and you can’t really train for that. You can show people from your experience what are often problem points, but that’s been a learning curve for me the past year.

ER: Beth has been great. Since she runs the Lachat, she takes good notes, so she can always go back to see what she did in the past [to fix a problem]. Our issue is that we run really low levels of nutrients, so any contamination can cause a big headache sometimes.

Q: What are some other ways that you handle those challenges?

BB: We have had conversations with our Lachat rep in the technical support department there and they’ve always been really helpful. We also have all their manuals, so that’s the first place I go to when [we run into a problem.]

ER: Also, here in Duluth, we have the EPA’s [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s] Mid-Continent Ecology Division Laboratory, and I’ve worked there in the past so we know the people in the lab and they’re always on the cutting edge of what’s new and how to solve problems. And here at the university, there’s another group in the Large Lakes Observatory where they have similar instrumentation and do similar testing, so we have a good community here to discuss problems with. I’ve been here about 25 years, as has our field manager, Jerry Henneck, so we’ve run into just about everything [in terms of challenges].

Q: With new students coming into the lab on a regular basis, does that present any training-related challenges? How do you get the students up to speed?

ER: We do have some challenges getting new students up to speed, particularly if they haven’t had any lab experience. We need to spend a good deal of time with these students, teaching them the basic techniques like using a pipette. We also try to give them a basic understanding about why we are measuring what we’re measuring, so they always get a basic limnology lesson. Basic steps include reading a standard operating procedure and watching one of us run the analyses, and then we watch them. It is also really helpful to have another, more experienced student around to help, but we have to be careful to observe their techniques ourselves to make sure bad habits aren’t passed along from student to student.

Q: How long does it normally take before people are comfortable with using the instruments?

ER: That depends on the instrument, of course. Something like the Lachat autoanalyzer will take months, while learning the pH meter takes just a day.

Q: How has training for analytical instruments changed over the years? Has it changed?

ER: I don’t think it has really changed, because most of the methods we use have been around for quite some time. We do run into some issues when doing analysis for the state when it’s regulatory based. We’ve come from a limnology background where we run things a certain way, and sometimes those methods differ from the Clean Water Act-approved methods, but we’ve worked that out.

Q: What advice do you have for other labs when it comes to training on analytical instruments?

ER: Just contact other labs in the area; they’re usually pretty willing to step in and give you advice. We’ve often offered advice to people who are just starting out because we are a university lab, so it’s part of what we’re supposed to do. Just talking with others [is the main factor] because sometimes going online or checking with the instrument reps isn’t enough, you need to get somebody who’s actually been having the same kinds of issues you [are having].

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?

ER: Because we have a mix of field work and lab work, all of us like to go out boating, canoeing, and camping and those sorts of activities, and that is what makes the work pretty enjoyable. We’re in a nice part of the country too.


  • Flow Injection Autoanalyzer: Quantitative analysis of nutrients (low levels of all nitrogen and phosphorus fractions) silica, chloride, and sulfate
  • Narrow band UV-Vis spectrophotometer: Quantitative colorimetric analysis for chlorophyll-a and phaeophytin, true color, low-level N and P nutrients
  • Turbidimeters: turbidity (bench and field)
  • Fluorometers: Algal pigments and water movement tracers
  • pH meters/titration equipment: alkalinity, acid neutralizing capacity, hardness
  • Hydrolab and YSI multi-parameter water quality sondes, handheld field displays, Campbell Scientific dataloggers
  • Limnological field sampling equipment—water, plankton, and sediment
  • Small boats