Friday, October 24, 2014

chain of custody

This is part 4 of my epic discussion on shipping environmental samples (see here and here and here for previous installments).

Environmental samples are much like samples gathered as part of a criminal investigation: you need to prove that they were collected properly (that is, that they are representative of actual conditions) and that they have not been tampered with.

The chain of custody involves two parts: keeping samples secure, and documenting the handover of samples.

Sample security

   Most work plans will specify that samples will be kept under the control of the sampler (or someone) until shipment. Practically speaking, this means that coolers should be kept at a staging area, or the trailer, or in your vehicle. They should not be shoved under the trailer or tucked behind a storage shed overnight because they'll stay cool and not-underfoot that way.

   The magic token we use to document sample security is a custody seal - a sticker that you sign and date, and then cover either side of the cooler with (or every individual sample, depending on the jurisdiction). Then you usually cover the custody seal and cooler with a few wraps of tape. The idea is that if someone cuts into the cooler/opens the sample jar, they will damage the seal.

   The custody seal may be provided by the lab or the sampling firm.  In a pinch, I've scribbled my signature and date on a piece of paper and taped that to the cooler. Alternately, you may have a restricted/special supply so that you can document exactly which seal is associated with which cooler/sample.The more specific/detailed the custody seal procedure is, the longer the whole process takes and the more likely you are to screw up, prompting howls of outrage from the lab, the lead chemist, the regulatory agency, etc.

Documenting sample handover
   We all use a form called a chain of custody (COC), which is either provided by the lab, or the sampling organization, or the sampling organization's client. That form lists the sample ID, bottleware (how many containers? What type?), preservative, date/time collected, and analyses to be performed. It may list laboratory quality control (QC) samples for the lab. It should also include a note if the samples are screaming hot/pure product or may otherwise require special handling. The form also includes a place for the sampler to sign and for the person handling the samples/packing the cooler to sign and date with the time. When the sample is handed over to the lab/courier or the lab opens the cooler, that person signs. Any time the samples change hands, the COC is signed or a new one is produced. Eventually, a copy of the completed COC is provided with the lab data to show how the samples were handled.

   Ideally, you have one COC per shipment. But sometimes you have multiple coolers and need separate COCs. Good luck squashing in that one bottle at the end!

   The COC is checked by the lab and by the sampling firm and/or client lead chemist to make sure everything was done correctly. If not, the data may be qualified or rejected, and may require re-sampling. Regulators and consultants for the opposition (if in a legal dispute) scrutinize this stuff.

This chain of custody process can be frustrating to a scientist, because it has zero impact on the analytical results. But ultimately, the samples are part of a legal process that is just as important to the overall project.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

driving and...

I used to talk on the phone while driving... quite often, actually, although not for very long for any given conversation. I've stopped entirely, for two reasons: in the last couple of years, more and more jurisdictions have made cell phone use illegal while driving; and when I broke down and got a smartphone and started receiving work e-mails, I had to have an "unlock" password that makes the phone a giant pain to dial with.

I've done a few regrettable things while driving to/from fieldwork. For example, eating a slice of cheescake. With a fork. In rush-hour traffic.

My worst example of distracted driving was when I was running late for a new field project. I was in a complete tizzy because I was following directions from a mapquest printout, and I was pretty sure I had made a wrong turn. Once I figured out I was indeed going to be more than 10 minutes late (remember, I hate being late), I tried to call the client contact. Oops, that was in a pile of papers tucked in the very deep center console of the cargo van. So there I was, trying to reach way below the dashboard for a bunch of buried papers, then shuffle through them, then dial the number and have a semi-intelligent conversation, all while bombing down the highway.

This is why I have a portable GPS to take with me for fieldwork. It's also why I leave with plenty of time and if I am running late, I find a safe place to stop well short of the actual arrival time.

Friday, October 17, 2014

siblings? cousins?

If you're on a long-term field project that requires staying overnight, and it's just two or three of you out there, you tend to get a little close. You work 10, 11, 12 hour days together, then you go back to the same hotel (or hotel room, if you're unlucky). You may be sharing a ride. Even if you split for dinner, you can't really escape them.

Regardless of whether you like or dislike the other field staff, you start developing your own vocabulary, in-jokes, nicknames, stories you've heard a million times already, pet peeves which can be exploited mercilessly...

When outsiders are convinced that you are siblings, or otherwise somehow related, it may be time to take a break.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

600 posts

Once again, I've gone through and compiled the last 100 posts for a word cloud. Someday I'll figure how to save everything at once, instead of copying and pasting from blogger to make an almost 60-page file.

"Environmental," "field," and "work" are always big. I think that "drilling" and "safety" are a little more prominent than in past post compilations.

For comparison, here's the previous word clouds: 500, 400, 300, 200, and 100.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

billable lunch?

When I first started doing fieldwork, I had to eat lunch. I was ravenous.

Now that my metabolism has slowed down, I either have something small/snacky (a granola bar or handful of nuts) or go without lunch altogether. It depends on whether or not I cobbled together a good breakfast and how busy I am - if I'm running around like a crazy person, I may forget about eating altogether.

If I don't eat lunch, and I'm going, going, going all day, then clearly the entire day is billable to the client.  But what if I'm overseeing people who stop and take an actual lunch break?

I generally consider the entire day to be billable. If the field crew is taking lunch, if I'm not eating something (or I spend 2 minutes eating a granola bar), I'm catching up on paperwork, mucking out the trailer, answering phone calls and e-mails I've ignored, etc. It is a slow day indeed if I have nothing to do for a half hour or so.

If the budget is super tight, I may donate that half hour or so. If there's a chance that I'm not going to have at least 8 hours of work that day, I'll probably consider the lunch time to be billable. On a very rare occasion I'll actually Go Out and sit down for lunch with coworkers/contractors, and that time is definitely not billable.

Consultants, what's your lunch/billing policy?

Friday, October 3, 2014

it is noted that

Another writing pet peeve to add to the pile:

I work with a few people who have the "it is observed/noted" writing tic, and it drives me nuts. You don't need to tell the reader that you're observing/noting it because you already have it in there. And that construction is so passive as to be a parody of itself. Really, who observed it and thought it was important enough to put it in? You, the writer did! Gah.

Luckily, it's an easy fix.

"It is noted that the site is inundated with floodwater when it rains, and every time this happens the treatment system shuts down for six hours."


"The site is inundated with floodwater when it rains, and every time this happens the treatment system shuts down for the six hours."

And while I have my red pencil out (and I can't resist this sort of thing):

"The site floods with every rainstorm because the seven-acre parcel drains directly into the treatment system pen. Whenever this happens, the treatment system shuts down for six hours to allow the innards PLC module to dry."

See? So much better.

Monday, September 29, 2014

conference time-keeping

Athene Donald recently addressed a big pet peeve of mine: conference talks that run way past their allotted time, thus screwing up the schedule for everyone else who has the misfortune to be after them.

When I've presented at conferences, I've usually had dire warnings to keep to the time limit, or else. And I respect those limits. How do I do that?

I practice with the material until I have a good sense of the "beats" of the presentation and I'm reasonably sure that I can end within a few minutes of the target. I also have a couple of ideas about where to expand in case I race through/forget something (nerves on stage) and it looks like I'll have some extra time at the end.

I give the presentation to interested parties internally as a trial run. In grad school and at work, I could always find someone with a stopwatch and a willingness to rip into the slides, the format/order of what I'm saying, and any bad speaking/presenting habits (Have a death grip on the podium? Hem and haw? Accelerate madly as the talk goes on?). But the best way to simulate a conference talk is to collect a reasonably large group of marginally interested people (students/staff who are just there for the promise of food/extra credit/a break from working) and present to them.

When I'm actually up there, I don't rely on a room clock (although it's nice to have one). I have a watch that I can strategically stick somewhere on the podium. And I work out a warning schedule with the moderator, if they haven't already established one. By the time I'm actually ready to present, the watch/moderator are really there for peace of mind and to be able to add a little more info to fill in a minute or so as needed.

So after I've done all my prep work, I find it incredibly annoying to sit through someone else's presentation that has clearly never been practiced and/or could never fit into the allotted time. For example, they spool up a power point with 100 slides for a 20-minute presentation, and the first slide is a wall of text. That's just disrespectful to the audience.

At the same time, it's really hard to provide context and say something interesting in a very short timeframe. I think that conference organizers are shooting themselves in the foot if they have to enforce a time limit of 15 minutes or less per presentation, unless there's some mechanism for speakers or their supplementary material to be immediately available to discuss/expand on/clarify things.