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Perspective On: A Microanalysis Lab

Each day involves something new at the McCrone Associates microanalysis lab.

Rachel Muenz

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The McCrone Group building.McCrone Associates

A Lab of Leaders

Giving staff responsibility for individual projects boosts organization's motivation

Each day involves something new at the McCrone Associates microanalysis lab. Dealing with a huge range of industries means lab staff do non-routine investigative microanalyses of a variety of samples and often have to create new methods altogether to complete the work a customer needs. Sometimes that makes for a big challenge, but it’s also what makes working at McCrone Associates so interesting and is one of the main reasons staff tend to stick around. Usually that work involves several thousand projects per year, which are tackled by the 25,000-square-foot lab’s 45 employees, says David Wiley, president at McCrone Associates. Clients come anywhere from the food and beverage to the pharmaceutical industries and are typically trying to understand a problem with either one of their products or processes; McCrone Associates helps find a solution by investigating the problem on the microscopic scale.

Kent Rhodes, senior VP and technical director at McCrone Associates, explains that the work they do, microanalysis, is different from trace analysis, using what he calls “the chocolate chip cookie analogy” to elaborate.

“Say you were asked to determine whether chocolate is present in a batch of cookies,” he says. “You could grind them up, do an extraction and analyze for chocolate using liquid chromatography. This is trace analysis—you might start with 100 grams of cookies, and find 100 mg of chocolate (1,000 ppm). For microanalysis, you would inspect and dissect the cookies, looking for chocolate chips or other discrete pieces of chocolate. Your answer might be that there are three chocolate chips in each cookie, each around four millimeters in size.”

Helping clients understand a problem on a different scale is one of the things Wiley finds most fascinating about the work being done at McCrone Associates.

“It provides insights moving clients closer to a solution to whatever the problem is,” he says. “That would be the underlying message if we did a case study on the work we do: microanalytical methods applied across a wide variety of materials from different industries.”

Being able to meet the huge variety of client needs means having a strong staff. Scientists in the lab have a variety of degrees—from the BS up to the PhD level— in a variety of fields, including chemistry, forensic science, geology, and biology. And they must have at least five years of lab experience to be considered for a project leader position in the microanalysis lab. Once new staff members start at McCrone Associates, they go through a mentorship program where they are paired with a senior scientist for up to a year, learning the instruments and techniques used at McCrone Associates, how to go about using the company’s resources, and the team approach to problem solving.

“At that point they’re evaluated to determine whether additional training is necessary or whether they’re ready to work on projects by themselves,” Rhodes explains. “We work under a project leader arrangement, so each scientist will deal individually with clients everywhere— from designing the analysis plan to carrying through the analysis and reporting the results. Our goal is to have our scientists ready to be able to work directly with a client in that model after a year.”

Wiley adds that McCrone Associates is part of the larger McCrone Group, which includes McCrone Microscopes and Accessories and Hooke College of Applied Sciences, where many of the scientists from McCrone Associates teach courses on some of the analytical techniques they use daily.

“When new staff members come onboard, they have the opportunity to take a class with one of our senior scientists as a training opportunity as well,” he says.

Seeing staff master new instrumentation and build their skills as they complete that training is one of the things Rhodes enjoys most about his job.

“A lot of people come in with a very good academic understanding of these techniques and methods, but [it’s more difficult] when you actually have to apply it to a real-world situation,” he says. “Many of these are very time-sensitive investigations—a production line is down, a product can’t be shipped—so there’s a lot of pressure to get the right answer very quickly. You really have to be in this environment to appreciate those skills. Helping people learn those skills and seeing them grow into the role is really rewarding for me.”

And those staff members seem to enjoy their jobs just as much, as shown by a high employee retention rate. For example, they have an employee who has been with the company for 53 years. The company celebrates employees’ years of service in five-year increments at its annual anniversary party, and Wiley said they had several employees celebrating ten and 15 years at the company and one who was marking 25 years. Wiley himself has been at McCrone Associates for 15 years.

“I think it’s the variety of the work and just the environment of the lab that keeps people motivated and keeps them wanting to continue the work that they’re doing,” he says, adding that the project leader structure is a big part of employee motivation.

Responsibilities and organization

Along with the project leaders, the lab also has a number of support staff who help monitor the progress of projects, work on reports, interact with clients, and tackle administrative duties for those projects, Wiley says.

Technology plays a role in keeping tabs on projects, though it has posed a bit of a challenge.

“Because of the nature of our testing, a lot of our tests are non-routine—they’re more qualitative analyses, identification of materials—so we’ve found that commercial LIMS systems for tracking samples haven’t really been effective for our types of analyses,” Rhodes says. “We’ve developed our own in-house software to track samples and manage the results that we generate from the various instruments that we use.”

As senior VP and technical director, it’s Rhodes’ job to make sure the lab’s instrumentation is maintained and calibrated, and quality requirements mean he has to ensure those instruments and techniques are validated as well. He also oversees project management and assigns resources and projects to people. Wiley, as president, oversees operations, but keeps an eye on what the scientists are working on, both from a curiosity standpoint and to stay in tune with the needs of clients.

Days for the project leaders, who handle five to ten projects simultaneously on average, vary greatly. Rhodes says they may start off finding out that they need to do some microscopic investigation of a sample, have a meeting with colleagues to discuss results of a second set of samples, and write a report for a third client—and then they may go into the lab and get an email or phone call from yet another client whose production line is down and have to work that into their schedule as well.

“It really is a question of what our clients need and how we can juggle several different clients at once and try to meet all their needs,” says Rhodes, who has worked with McCrone Associates for 24 years. “That’s the overwhelming theme of the day here—you have to be adaptable and be able to adjust as the needs of your clients change.”

Meeting the challenges

Understanding the many different needs of clients from such a variety of industries is tough work, which all comes down to melding McCrone Associates’ expertise in microanalysis with the client’s expertise in their industry, Rhodes says. Wiley adds that communication is crucial to ensuring that they are giving clients exactly what they need.

“We work very hard to have open communications and relationships with our clients,” he explains. “We do our best to communicate an understanding of the work that we do and the questions they’re asking and make sure there’s an open dialogue about what is necessary to move forward [all while ensuring that] they understand the scope of what we need to do to be able to help them.”

Other challenges include meeting government regulations when working with clients regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or other government bodies and staying on top of rapidly changing technology.

“Each problem, each sample that a client brings us has its own unique facets and may take a unique approach to understand, investigate, analyze, and provide results that will help to resolve a client’s problem,” Wiley explains.

“Sometimes trying to work within the boundaries of those regulations is a challenge.”

Rhodes says that they have handled the difficulty of fitting nonroutine analysis into the framework of Current Good Manufacturing Practice from the FDA or other regulations by investing heavily in their quality department.

Main Microanalytical Instruments and Techniques Used

  • Automated Electron Microscopy Particle Analysis
  • Electron Microprobe Analysis (EMA)
  • Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR)
  • Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM)
  • Raman Spectroscopy
  • Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) with EDS/WDS
  • Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM)
  • X-Ray Diffraction (XRD)
  • X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS)

“Because we’re not doing an assay where we can necessarily reference a USP [U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention] or an ATSM-type standard method, it’s up to us to develop those methods, validate them if necessary, and document them to the degree necessary to use them on clients’ samples,” he says. “A lot of that comes back to us and our quality department.”

In terms of industry change, Wiley says that they often see shifts in the problems they are helping clients deal with—as one set of problems is resolved, another set crops up. Recognizing those trends is another important challenge they must meet. Increased levels of cleanliness in industries is another change, Rhodes adds.

“The types of contaminants that clients want identified become smaller and fewer, and so it becomes much more difficult to isolate those materials from samples and analyze them,” he says. “As cleanliness levels go up, our challenge to analyze the remaining residual materials in such samples becomes much more difficult.”