Thursday, August 28, 2014

sample packaging 2

I recently discussed the various requirements/procedures/biases involved in shipping samples to a commercial lab. So what if you don't use a commercial carrier, but instead either bring the samples over yourself or arrange for a lab courier pickup?

Some of the packaging requirements are easier. You're not packaging stuff to travel across the country, kept to a certain temperature for several hours (or more), and with the expectation that the packages may be juggled/kicked/dropped. However, you still have to ensure the following:

Preventing Breakage

Maybe you don't need elaborate stuffing/packaging procedures. But bottles that clink are bottles that break. Individual bubble bags are still required, and some organizations still require bubble wrap at the bottom and around the sides of coolers.

Keeping Samples Cold

The lab still has the same temperature requirements whether the samples come in the mail or otherwise. You can still use ice cubes in bags, (maybe) gel packs, or freeze water in bottles. However, you don't have to worry as much about stuff melting and leaking. In fact, I've worked with several people who just upend ice cubes into the cooler, creating a "beer cooler" effect.

Here's why I don't do the "beer cooler" thing: Sure, it keeps the samples nice and cold. And sure, it's easier not to bother with filling and sealing bags of ice. But as those cubes melt, your samples will be sitting directly in a water bath, and if that water gets near the samples you may damage the labels or make it impossible to determine if the samples leaked. Also, I think it's obnoxious to force the lab techs to rummage around in a cooler full of ice-cold water/partially melted ice cubes.

Preventing Leakage

You or the courier may not care if a bubble bag breaks or if you've got a bunch of ice water slopping around the cooler. But you still need to prevent sample leakage. If you're going to be casual about ice cube containment, you'd better make damn sure you have ziplocks for your sample bags. Otherwise, the same options apply: bubble bag only, ziplock on inside of bubble bag, ziplock on outside of bubble bag.

Sealing the Cooler

I once thought that I didn't have to seal the cooler if I was just going to hand it to a lab representative. I was wrong.

Maybe in certain circumstances, it's ok, but it's safest to throw at least one wrap of tape (usually with the chain of custody (COC) seals in place as required) around the cooler just so it's secure physically and legally.

Addressing the Cooler

Finally, something that we can drop entirely! Whew.

Other Obligations

We discussed this in the comments to the other post, but if you're shipping something in organic solvents, you need to be aware of federal sample volume/packaging requirements. Those requirements don't go away if you are acting as the carrier (or if the lab is). Incidentally, if you're working out of a vehicle and you're carrying your stuff around on public roads, you need to be aware of those volume requirements at all times, and not just when you're actually preparing to bring your samples to the lab.

Takeaway: even though using/acting as a courier is easier than shipping via a third party, it doesn't prevent you from running into a tangle of standard operating procedures.

Monday, August 25, 2014

grad school worth it?

Back when I was in grad school, I discussed the value of a masters' degree as an investment. Now I'm more than 5 years out from grad school. Was it worth taking 2 years out of my life? Did I recoup the salary I'd missed while I was living on a poverty-level TA/RA?

As I'd suggested in that old post, the value of a Masters degree isn't that easy to quantify.

I didn't get a big salary bump after I graduated. But I was able to find work in my field a couple months after I finished my thesis, right when the bottom had dropped out of the job market. I didn't use what I'd learned in grad school right away, either. I ended up working on some high-impact, high-visibility, ridiculously stressful projects that I hated, but which looked impressive on a résumé. I also got a PG.

I leveraged the PG + the experience + the degree into a job that pays better and that I enjoy, where I do get to be a technical expert and use the stuff I learned in grad school. I don't think I'd be here without the degree. At some point, the client expects the technical expert to have proof of education and certifications, and I have those now.

And on a personal note, I had an awesome experience in grad school. I was surrounded by smart, super-motivated, interesting people of all ages from all over the world. I developed a close-knit group of friends and we had a blast together. I had grown so much since college, and I was able to really take advantage of all the opportunities available at a major research university.

So would I recommend grad school for other environmental consultants?

It depends on so many factors: is there a need (in your firm or elsewhere) for the subject you'd want to study in more depth? Can you wrangle financial support to go? Can you get into a program that is well respected in your chosen field and/or in the region you plan to work in? If you're going to work through school, how long will it take, and are you sure you'll be able to complete it? Grad school isn't usually an automatic ticket to the next step in environmental consulting, so even though it worked for me, it may not work for everyone.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

environ. consulting career paths

A long time ago, I mentioned that field personnel in environmental consulting can be broken into 3 broad categories, which are about evenly represented: geologists, engineers, and environmental scientists.

Everyone starts out doing environmental sampling, because those samples are the foundation of everything else we do. And the cheap, entry-level folks get to do the grunt work. Field folks have a relatively clear pathway to management: first, start running small field events, then more complex field events, then entire projects. There's enough fieldwork and non-scientific logistics/management in the industry that you don't need to be an expert in what you actually went to school for to be successful as a manager.

But some people don't want to be managers, or there are too many managers around already. So they specialize.

Over time, the geologists start to focus on more technical geology work (overseeing drill rigs and field projects of increasing complexity, evaluating geologic data) and the engineers likewise start to do more engineering analysis. Some of the environmental scientists are chemists or biologists, and they may end up focusing on data validation, risk assessments, or ecology-type work (wetlands delineation, etc). Other environmental scientists are generalists: either they majored in Environmental Science or their academic focus was in something not all that helpful for environmental consulting. Options for specialization include regulatory compliance, hazardous material management, and industrial hygiene/safety.

Career paths in environmental consulting are not static, but are generally ad-hoc and carved out of a combination of technical skills, the projects available, and how much you're able to push into the role you want.

Monday, August 18, 2014

academics to consulting

A while ago, an academic ecologist posted an interview with an environmental consultant here. As a former grad student and as someone who has occasionally worked with academics as a consultant, I'm always interested in how the environmental biz looks to folks who have lots of experience in academia.

The consultant mentions a few cultural differences that I'd agree with:

1. The need to account for your time: you may have flexibility in your hours to a certain degree, but you also need to have a certain number of billable hours, and be able to justify those billable hours to project managers (and ultimately, to clients).

2. The level and direction of scientific inquiry is ultimately determined by regulatory requirements rather than scientific questions. I struggle with this at times. Although it would be nice to design a side study to figure out why, exactly, the contaminants are behaving a particular way at a site, I need to tie my evaluation to the ultimate disposition of the site. Are we collecting data that we will actually need in the future?

3. Reports and other deliverables (maps, etc.) are targeted to a much wider audience. You can't assume that the client or other stakeholders (local environmental groups/politicians/residents) will have a scientific background, so you need to make sure your arguments are well-reasoned and clear.

One culture isn't worse than the other; they just have different end goals. I do think that folks who transfer from industry to academia (and vice versa) will have a much easier time if they embrace those differences.

Friday, August 15, 2014

sample packaging 1

Sample packaging for shipment is an aspect of the environmental biz that may seem minor, but different field folks/organizations have strongly-held and conflicting opinions on The Correct Method.

For this post, I'll focus on shipping fragile samples (glass bottleware) to a commercial lab. The basics are that you need to keep everything intact and cold, and prevent leakage. In practice, each unit (department, office, etc) has its own standard procedures. These generally started out based on the requirements of the most stringent major client/regulatory regime, and were further modified based on past experience and/or the idiosyncrasies of whoever was in charge.

The variations I've seen are:

Preventing Breakage - Bottleware

The standard is to use bubble bags for each sample bottle. Unless you're packaging smaller vials, in which case you may be required to rubber-band them together and/or separate them with paper towels before adding to a larger bubble bag.

I've shipped all sorts of bottles. The worst, which I haven't had to use in ages, were 4-liter glass bottles (like these). The 4-liter bottles broke if you looked at them funny, were incredibly heavy and awkward when full, and were so tall, you'd have to use special coolers to have enough space for ice/packaging. If the lab needs a large volume of liquid, send them a bunch of 1-liter bottles.

Prevent Breakage - Stuffing

Some folks are more casual about stuffing than others. In my experience, bottles that can shift are the ones which will break. Also, you will inevitably find that you need to send a couple bottles and you only have standard (large) coolers.

1.  More ice: this will make your cooler weigh a ton. Also, if you use only ice (and a lot of it), it's liable to shift as it melts.
2. Bubble wrap only: it's easy for the lab to dig through/remove, but you'll go through epic amounts of bubble wrap.
3. Whatever you can get your hands on. I tend to use this method. I usually hoard packing materials that I get from other field supplies as they come in, which annoys my office/trailer buddies. Packing peanuts and other loose items go into 1-gallon ziplocks for quick use later. In a pinch, I've been known to inflate a ziplock bag and then double-bag it to take up more space.
4. Vermiculite: this stuff was great. Absorbed liquids, super soft, and poured right into the cooler to fill every available space. The only downside was that you tended to get it everywhere. Oh, and vermiculite may also have some trace of asbestos in it and has been banned as a packing material.

Prevent Breakage - Outer Layer

1. A layer of bubble wrap goes all around the outside of the trash bag.
2. No, a layer goes all around the inside of the trash bag, damn it!
3. You already have everything in bubble bags, why would you need another layer of bubble wrap?
4. An absorbant pad goes on the bottom of the cooler, inside or outside of the trash bag. Or not.

Keeping Samples Cold

1. Use blue gel ice packs. You may never get them back, though. Also, some jurisdictions frown on using them.
2. Double-bagged ice (usually 1-gallon ziplock bags). Some folks like to make fat pillows by stuffing them as much as possible, but I like to keep some empty space so that they can be squashed into place.
3. Use special, super-strong ziplock bags and only 1 bag for ice.
4. Freeze water in plastic containers (such as old water bottles) and toss those in. They'll stay frozen longer, but are much harder to place right next to/above samples.
5. Ice only beneath samples!
6. Bags of ice beneath samples may cause shifting as they melt. Ice only above samples!

Prevent Leakage

Everybody (I think) uses a trash bag to line the inside of the cooler itself. Many places require you to also seal off (usually with duct tape) the water drain spigots. But what if a bottle breaks?
1. Samples go into individual bubble bags, then ziplock bags!
2. Samples go into ziplock bags, then bubble bags!
3. Why the heck would you need ziplock bags when the bubble bags are already sealed at the top?

Sealing the Cooler

I'm not going to get into the variations in maintaining the chain of custody (COC) here. But you do need to make sure the cooler itself is secure, and usually that you have COC seals over both sides.
1. Strapping (filament) tape only. Stick the COC seal on just before the last wrap or two of tape.
2. Duct tape or strapping tape, then COC seal, then clear packaging tape.
3. Clear tape only (with the COC seal somewhere in there) is fine.

Addressing the Cooler

1. The shipper's label may come off. You need a secondary address label!
2. A secondary address label won't stick to the top of a cooler, which invariably has a weird pebbly texture. Cover the tops of all coolers with duct tape so that the address label will stick.
3. Geez, no need to waste duct tape. Just tape the secondary address label on first, and use at least one really long strip of clear packing tape to hold it on. It'll get caught under the strapping/duct/clear tape that will go around the cooler .
4. A secondary what? Have you seen how sticky those clear shipper sleeves are? Just stick one of those on the mandated location (top of cooler or on a specific tag for the handle).

Despite all our best efforts, bottles do break. Sometimes, entire coolers' worth, if that cooler was apparently dropped a few stories. But we go through a lot of contortions to get the most secure samples, because the cost of all this effort and our fancy supplies are minimal compared to the cost it took to acquire those samples.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Some field folks are paranoid about bedbugs - only sleeping on top of the sheets, bringing their own sheets, taking special precautions to keep all luggage away from anything potentially infested, etc.

I am not.

I've only stayed in one room which may have had bedbugs: I got a line of several bites overnight. But I never brought anything home.

I'd estimate that I've spent 1/4 of my career (work/grad school) traveling and staying in hotels. I usually stay in one room per week; even with long-term fieldwork, I tend to go home for the weekend and then stay in a new room the next week. So, in a given year, I stay in 13 different hotel rooms. After 5 years, it's 65 rooms. After 10 years, 130 rooms.

I've stayed in fancy places (mostly for vacation), big conference facilities, little independently-operated motels, and the odd sketchy motel. I've stayed in major cities and out in the middle of nowhere. And only one potential infestation.

Travelers/field folks: have you run into problems with infestations, and if so, where?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

blog disclaimer

I haven't written any disclaimers in a while...

I tend to hold on to anecdotes until they're completely irrelevant to what I'm currently working on, and in some cases, years later and/or until I'm at a different organization. I never use real names, and often change minor details. My name is not actually "Shortencia Q. Geologist".

I have strong opinions about lots of stuff, from drilling to office/project management to general industry practices. Although I would like some things to be a certain way, that does not mean that my way is the only correct possibility, or that I can actually do things the way I'd prefer.

When I tell stories about myself or other people, I'm only illustrating particular facets for each blog post. For example, sometimes I think my dad comes off sort of one-dimensionally because I tend to vent about things that aggravate me. In reality, he's a complicated person that I have a very warm, if occasionally exasperated, relationship with. I'm complicated, too, and I can be annoying as well.

Sometimes I worry that a post I write will be a little too identifiable. I've removed one post for that reason and may remove others in the future. But for now, I'm planning on continuing at about the same level of disclosure/posting frequency as I have in the past and staying pseudonymous so that I can continue to post without ruffling real-life feathers.

Friday, August 1, 2014

writing for free

This recent post on AAM regarding writing for free (for an established for-profit publisher) collected a big pile of comments.

I've been asked to contribute blog posts/articles for large, established scientific-type organizations. With minimum article length and posting frequency requirements. For free (oh, sorry, for increased visibility and professional reputation).

Here's the thing. Accidental Remediation is a hobby. It doesn't pay the bills. The job I actually get paid for involves travel, erratic internet, and long hours. So I'm not going to commit myself to a set number of articles following a specified standard for the long term, for free. And since it's pseudonymous, I don't get any professional boost from what I write here.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be A Writer when I grew up. But my personality is not terribly well suited to being a professional writer in the modern era: I am not a hustler. I do best with a steady paycheck and healthcare, so that I have space to worry about everything else. And I do (mostly) enjoy the environmental biz, where I work hard and do interesting science and my contributions are recognized by being well paid.