LABORATORY PEOPLE: Insights from a Virginia Tech University Chemistry Laboratory Manager

University laboratories need to thoroughly prepare for new academic years while considering their student needs.

by | Aug 30, 2023

University science laboratories continue to serve as the foundation of educational institutions and universities. The university laboratory environment enables hands-on scientific learning and growth for thousands of university student’s science majors. In an interview with Claudia Patricia Brodkin, the fourth-floor chemistry laboratory manager at Virginia Tech, she provides a personal insight into university laboratory’s preparations as their new university school year starts.

University laboratory coordinators such as Brodkin ensure that laboratory spaces are ready to support interactive scientific learning and provide science students with the practical laboratory experience they need to succeed in their scientific field of interest.

Q: Could you please tell us about your role at Virginia Tech as a University Chemistry Laboratory Manager?

A: I have been at my job for 22 years. I am the person who’s responsible for making sure that everything the students need to do in their laboratory is here and ready so they can come in, do their laboratory, and leave. That includes all chemicals and lab equipment that are needed and that all lab instruments are working and running properly.

Q: How many students do you usually have per semester?

A: This semester, our laboratory here at Virginia Tech has about 1,000 students. In the spring, I would say it’s closer to about 1,200 students because the analytical laboratories are taught in the spring and not in the fall.

Q: How do laboratories enhance science students’ educational experience?

 A: A university laboratory provides students with hands-on scientific learning opportunities, which is especially helpful if they are hands-on learners. People can learn through several different approaches. Students have told me that connecting their science lectures to their laboratory work, it helps them better understand the scientific material.

Because Virginia Tech is such a large university, there are several science instructors who teach organic laboratories, and they are not all on the same page or in the same order. So sometimes our Virginia Tech students come to their science laboratory and haven’t even covered the stuff we’re working on. Then the students will later say, “Oh, now I understand what you were teaching in the laboratory because we’re learning it in our science lecture.”

That is one of the downsides of a large institution like Virginia Tech versus where I went to school. I went to a small D3 school where our professors taught the lecture in the morning, and we did a lab in the afternoon that coincided with the lecture from the morning. Personally, I’d be like, “OK, now I get it,” since I am a hands-on learner. 

Q: How do you prepare the university laboratories for Virginia Tech students for the fall semester?

A: We have certain laboratory supplies that get ordered like lab gloves and paper towels that people don’t often think about. I start ordering all of the laboratory supplies in early August or even in July so we have it here for the laboratory students.

We’ve had trouble getting our science laboratory supplies on schedule, especially since the pandemic. Only two weeks ago did I recently receive the glass pasteur pipettes that I ordered in September 2022. Where I used to purchase laboratory supplies and chemicals two weeks in advance, I’m now trying to order early in the university school semester, because the last thing you want to do is to cancel the laboratory due to a lack of laboratory supplies. 

Q: Speaking of the pandemic era, how do university laboratories adapt to remote and hybrid scientific education?

A: Our organic laboratories are all hands-on because you cannot learn the things you need to learn by watching a video. We found that when science students returned to university laboratories in person, those who had completed general chemistry entirely online didn’t know how to use automatic pipettes in the laboratories. Five of them broke on the first day.

This shows that university laboratories need to be hands-on. If the science students had continued to learn online, they would have damaged laboratory equipment after finding employment in commercial or research laboratories. 

Q: That’s really important for safety, too. How do you ensure safety in the Virginia Tech’s university laboratories?

A: I talk with my laboratory students on the first day of classes and tell them what my expectations are. I give them a story of a laboratory student who had 3rd degree burns on his face from acid, why that should not have happened, and what the students should have done with the laboratory equipment. I tell them, “I don’t say this to scare you, I say it, so you are aware.” 

Being in a chemistry laboratory, you always have to have your mind on what you’re doing. You cannot do a chemistry laboratory mindlessly. You have to be focused on what you’re doing. If a student is on their phone while in the laboratory, I will call them out directly. During every laboratory, the students have to look at the hazards of the chemicals they are going to be using, so they are more aware.

 Q: Do you have any advice for science students looking to get into professional fields of laboratory work?

 A: As I said, I came from a small D3 school, and our laboratory manager or science professors would tell us “This instrument is down, I’m going to be working on it. If any of the majors want to come and watch us, they can.” I found that really helpful and I also do that. I am open to questions during that time. This gives students experience they would not normally get.

Q: Are there any additional details or comments you would like to add?

 A: I would say that it is important for laboratory managers to set the tone for what they want their labs to be. My science professors and all my teaching assistants know what my expectations are. 

I require my laboratory to be spotless and clean. The science teaching assistants have to check out with me before they leave. When they get three consecutive checkouts where everything is perfect, they no longer have to check out with me until another teaching assistant complains that stuff wasn’t ready. It is the laboratory managers responsibility to set that tone for the expectations of the students, the teaching assistants, and the science professors.

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