Friday, July 27, 2018

Quality control

There was a side discussion that blew up a bit in last week's Ask a Manager, and now that I'm actually at a computer and can type, I can't find it. Anywhoo, there was a dispute regarding academic vs. industrial quality control.

As a scientist who has done reasonably similar work both in grad school and at work, there is no comparison. Academia just doesn't have the same controls compared to even the cheapest, lowest common denominator fieldwork in the environmental business.

If we do a site investigation, we have at least some basic standard operating procedures (SOPs) that are listed or referred to so that anyone can see what we were supposed to be doing. The samples remain under chain of custody to ensure that there's no tampering. The samples go to a laboratory that's been accredited to run those particular analyses, and then we get a lab report that either is included or is referred to and is available upon request. Any report, no matter the size, gets at least one review by someone who didn't write the report/pull together the tables and figures. And then the client gets a crack at it, and then the regulator(s) can comment. Even a simple real estate transaction between two private parties can get escalated if sampling turns up concentrations higher than certain thresholds, and you can be sure that any follow-up sampling from that will have lots of scrutiny.

Once you start entering into the realm of Real Money, feisty stakeholders (such as irritated and well-educated neighbors), and litigation, it gets much more involved. The folks doing the actual sampling may be overseen by a third party in the field, which may collect their own sample sets (split sampling) and send to their own labs. You may have consultants retained by the polluter, the neighbors, the town where the contamination is (or at least the board of health), and environmental/health advocacy groups, all with their own agendas, poring over the data and coming to their own conclusions. Quality control and documentation becomes critical for everything. Academia just doesn't compare to this.

Monday, July 23, 2018

office to field

I got a good question on this post regarding the transition from office to field attire in the same day. Guys have it easy in this respect because even if they work in a formal environment, they can just wear khakis to work and then lose the tie/roll up the sleeves and not look ridiculous if they have to run out to do something "clean" in the field (grab some equipment, meet someone, etc).

I have to admit that when I'm in this situation (and it comes up relatively frequently in my case, because I run out to meet clients or regulators on site walks/inspections/technical reviews), I dress kind of like a guy for the day. I am not at all a polo wearer normally, but I do have some company branded polos that fit ok and don't look sloppy untucked (nothing looks right tucked in for me), and I have a pair of boot-cut khakis that fit over steel-toe boots. The khakis are from Gap (from like 10 years ago so they're totally out of fashion) and they're more of an office style than a "jeans" style (flat pockets, a bit drapey, etc), so they're more formal than just jeans. If it's cold out, then I can wear a nice office appropriate top, because if I'm in the field I'm going to wear a jacket anyway.This is going to sound kind of silly, but last time I needed to buy steel-toe boots, I deliberately picked a pair that were dark brown and had kind of a nice finish so that they went well with khakis.

I actually work in a relatively formal office, but the corporate branded polo (or cardigan) + khakis or dark jeans says "I would not dress like this normally, but I am going to a site". If the office is very formal, one could wear steel-toe boots with this the whole day (ugh. who wants to wear their boots more than absolutely necessary) to give the impression "I am just here briefly before I do fieldwork". Even in a formal office, an environmental consulting firm will an exception for people who are running to the field.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Technician vs. scientist

When we're talking about entry-level field staff, some people tend to talk about the "techs", and I recently overheard a young geologist refer to himself as a "field technician". In consulting, field technicians and entry-level scientists are not the same thing, even though what they do in the field can look awfully similar. This is why I always refer to the samplers working under the supervision of a field manager as "field staff", because they can be either.

Generally, a technician does not need a four-year degree, has a clear list of regular, standard tasks, and does not make field decisions. A field tech is not considered a "professional" and therefore is not exempt from overtime rules. So many  consulting firms claim that all of their junior staff are scientists who happen to also take regular samples/measurements. They really need to watch it, though, and make sure that those junior scientists are also working on more technically involved work and are in a position to make project decisions.

Technicians are not necessarily low level staff. I work with a CAD (computer aided design) technician whose pay is on a similar level to my own even though I have two more degrees and ten years more working experience than they do. While the CAD technician does some really cool stuff these days, the person who manages, reviews, and signs off on the drawings/renderings is a licensed professional scientist/engineer.

In my experience, field technicians (vs. scientists) are relatively rare in consulting. But this may vary by region/corner of the environmental business...

Friday, March 2, 2018

still not an advantage

When I was writing the previous post about having a young-looking face, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a late-middle age man who has always been "the smartest guy in the room" and expected (and received) instant respect his entire career. I had mentioned disliking how young I look in passing, and he said, "but that's such a career advantage!"

I'm usually reasonably even-keeled, and I'm the last person to start a fight in public (think cocktail party), but I had to fire back. What possible advantage could it be that every time I meet someone new in a professional situation, they peg me as a nobody, someone who couldn't possibly be very knowledgeable in (whatever I'm there for). Yeah, I pleasantly surprise a lot of people who were initially thinking "why on earth is she here?". And I can prepare a mean ambush for those who are on the other side in technical disputes. But it is so much work to get that respect that is just immediately granted to other scientists who look the part. I work on my physical presentation (stance, voice, etc), I have a whole strategy for how to work in my years of experience at whatever the task is, I make sure that I have all my technical backup ready to go and that I know the subject cold... and then everybody else just rolls in and does their thing.

You may be wondering if part of the problem is that I look young and I'm female. Yeah. The whole package really doesn't help. But that's a whole other post...

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

not the baby anymore

I am pleased to announce that I have finally reached an important career milestone: I no longer automatically look like the youngest person in the room! I have officially graduated to looking like a "young professional" instead of a college (or God help me, high school) student.

I didn't want to jinx it, but the last few times I've gone out to dinner with a field crew, I have been in the not-carded group. And I've just recently been in some high-level meetings that included someone else with a "baby face" who looked quite a bit younger than me.

Of course, my apparent age is still way off from my actual age and I'm still dismissed as insignificant even when I'm the technical lead, but I'll take what I can get.

Monday, February 12, 2018

old-time academic burn

Sometimes my work leads me in interesting directions. Working in East Coast Big City means that I occasionally deal with contamination that is centuries old. And because geology doesn't necessarily change that much in a few centuries, occasionally I end up digging into papers and manuscripts that are more than 100 years old.

One particular thesis had some pretty sharp opinions on previous work. I've redacted it because it's subject is too close to my current work, but you'll get the gist:

"[Previous investigators' work] I am unable to accept, on the palpable errors in their field investigations. I do not believe that [this correlation] is to be accepted. I dissent from the conclusions of these papers, because the structure of this region has been worked out along untenable lines. Professor X makes the assertion that the cleavage and bedding practically coincide, and my own observations disprove this statement. Professor Y, who has been able to recognize these two structures, has evidently not made any use of the information."

I shall endeavor to work "has evidently not made any use of this information" into my next set of review comments.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Why we care

I came across an old article that I'd received ages ago (before blogging was a thing) and I think it's still relevant today as a reminder of why environmental regulations are so critical.

The Philly Inquirer did a a great series on the aftermath of a fire at an old chemical warehouse, called "beyond the flames", and lo and behold, I was able to find it online without having to go through a paywall. Link below:

I've been lucky that by the time I got involved in environmental cleanups, the most blatant contamination had been addressed, and we had procedures to stay safe. But many first responders back in the day weren't so lucky.