Interesting Article on Generational differences in the Lab

Off-topic conversations and chit-chat.

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http://files.pharmtech.com/alfresco_ima ... erican.pdf

Interesting comparison of four generations of scientists, and especially chromatographers that are working together in our labs today. Being early GenX myself I relate to both the description of the BabyBoomer and GenX scientists.

I have to agree with the author that my generation may be the last to really delve into how the equipment works and what is happening behind the scenes as the "black box" instruments become more prevalent. I have seen the change from instrument manufacturers sending Operating Manuals with full electrical and flow schematics included, to ones that only include setup and trouble shooting information, on to what now seem to only be basic information on how to turn it on and start an analysis.

Does the future look bright, or are we losing something vital to analytical chemistry?
The past is there to guide us into the future, not to dwell in.
There is also the trend to making instruments less user serviceable. Certain manufacturers are only supplying the special tools required for service to their own techs. So not only can I not align my auto sampler needle, our contract service person can't either. I have to call the Manufacturers tech.
Steve Reimer wrote:
There is also the trend to making instruments less user serviceable. Certain manufacturers are only supplying the special tools required for service to their own techs. So not only can I not align my auto sampler needle, our contract service person can't either. I have to call the Manufacturers tech.


Yes, this is becoming too common. Apple and John Deere have gone this route. Small to mid sized farmers are beginning to steer away from JD because of it, and I heard that a good black market for the scan tool for the onboard computer is growing.

Maybe they can enact the Right to Repair laws at a Federal level and help get us away from this.

Black Boxing has benefits but it locks an instrument into a limited use product, unlike a standard GC/MS which can have thousands of potential applications when operated by an experienced operator. Today I can analyze volatiles on my instrument, tomorrow maybe semi volatiles, then look for isothiocyanates in mustard flour and after that set up to analyze pesticide residues in chicken fat. I would hate to think of what the expense would be for a lab if you need to purchase a separate instrument for each of those tests, especially if there will be a limited number of each.
The past is there to guide us into the future, not to dwell in.
As the "fossilocracy" (to steal the word from Dick Henry), we bemoan the fact that the young whippersnappers don't really understand chromatography, but the point is that they don't have to (and chromatography would be much less useful if they had to). Here's an out-take from our "Fundamentals of LC" course:

The fact is that as any useful technology evolves and becomes more widely used, it becomes increasingly “appliance like”. The technology makes fewer and fewer demands on the skills of the users. Imagine what it would be like to use a microwave oven if you had to be familiar with the application of the Helmholtz equation (not to mention the vibrational energy levels of water in foods!). As *users*, we don’t want to have to mess with all that – we want to be able to put in our bowl of soup and press “reheat”. Just as most users of microwave ovens are not physicists or electrical engineers, so most users of HPLC will not be chromatographers.

Image

Perhaps the evolution of the PC is a better analogy (but the microwave oven makes for a cooler slide!). When I started using a personal computer in the late 70s -- first a Radio Shack TRS-80, and then an Apple II -- you had to understand things like memory addresses and I/O ports in order to do anything useful, and the number of computer users was tiny by today's standards (Between 1977 and 1981, Apple sold just over 40,000 units, per Wikipedia). Fast forward a few decades, and Apple sold over 18 million Macs in 2016. Forgetting social media and personal use to focus on the workplace, there are huge numbers of PCs in use -- as word processors, e-mail clients/servers, accounting systems, communications, even analytical instrument controllers -- and virtually none of the users know anything about how they work; they just work . . .
. . . until something goes wrong. And then they call IT (or tech support) to fix the problem. The IT people know/understand a lot about how those computers fit into the business, but they, in turn, are supported by a smaller number of developers. The Jonathan Swift quote comes to mind:
"Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
"

You can map that same concept to laboratory instruments; it's like a mushroom:
Image

I suspect that a lot of the "veterans" on the Forum like Steve, James, and I would be "tech support" or "developers" by that classification (and in a small organization, we might be everything!).

To come back to my original slide, the problem is that while analytical instruments are evolving into appliances, they aren't there yet -- which is why us veterans (and this Forum) still serve a very necessary function.
-- Tom Jupille
LC Resources / Separation Science Associates
tjupille@lcresources.com
+ 1 (925) 297-5374
I can agree with that Tom for certain. While I think the place for us old school chromatographers will continually shrink, there will still always be a need for us at some level. Just like almost anyone can cook an edible meal in a microwave and survive, or go to a fast food joint for a quick meal cooked pretty much assembly line style, it is also nice to be able once in a while to visit a nice high end restaurant and have a superb meal cooked by a highly skilled chef.

Even when the labs become a place of push button operators doing routine analysis every day, there will still be that head scratching, blank stare moment when a sample arrives and the instruments just can't give a usable answer, and that's when we break out the professional cook stove and call for the chef :)
The past is there to guide us into the future, not to dwell in.
I actually think there's just as much work to be done in a modern lab for the old-fashioned chromatographer as there always was - at least in research environments rather than routine, high-throughput labs.

The difference is that even just 10-15 years ago, the lab might have been based on one old-style chromatographer doing a job a day. Now the same lab might have the same old-style chromatographer still doing a job a day (probably the unusual jobs), but his/her job is only occupying a couple of hours of instrument time (methods are so much shorter, set-up times so much less) and the instrument is doing 6 other jobs for people who are not hard-core chromatographers, and who can benefit from modern simplicity by simply walking in and running stuff.
The shift in "black-boxing" the GC has been good for me since people call me to applicate or re-applicate GC's as their needs shift. It also means I get calls to fix things because they do not understand the fundamentals and where to start troubleshooting.

The danger in black boxing lies in trusting the results too much. Especially true when presented with the numbers and not, in conjunction, the chromatogram. A normalized chromatogram with a bad injection will provide reasonable numbers that can be completely off kilter....

All of which means, my fundamental job is training, followed by the work as a glorified plumber.

Best regards,

AICMM
... black boxing, and trusting results too much: even before I became a proper chromatographer, I was working in a lab where there was an old GC system used occasionally for fatty acid analysis, for which someone, in the mists of time, had set up a nice method. One day one of the technicians was complaining that her samples had very odd levels of different fatty acids. I looked, and it was obvious that the whole chromatogram had stretched or shortened (I can't remember which) such that the peaks were now being mislabelled. I tried to explain that the peak labelled C18:1 wasn't C18:1 any more, but the technician, who was nearly in tears, was telling me it had to be C18:1 because the system had labelled it C18:1. I couldn't get her to understand that it was merely labelling a peak at a particular time "C18:1" because that's where C18:1 ought to elute, and there was no further evidence that it was C18:1 (this was an FID system, so no mass or anything). In the end, she was so emotional and convinced the machine was right that I gave up trying to persuade her otherwise - it seemed too cruel. I think her boss just decided that the samples were weird. No idea what happened in the end.
lmh wrote:
... black boxing, and trusting results too much: even before I became a proper chromatographer, I was working in a lab where there was an old GC system used occasionally for fatty acid analysis, for which someone, in the mists of time, had set up a nice method. One day one of the technicians was complaining that her samples had very odd levels of different fatty acids. I looked, and it was obvious that the whole chromatogram had stretched or shortened (I can't remember which) such that the peaks were now being mislabelled. I tried to explain that the peak labelled C18:1 wasn't C18:1 any more, but the technician, who was nearly in tears, was telling me it had to be C18:1 because the system had labelled it C18:1. I couldn't get her to understand that it was merely labelling a peak at a particular time "C18:1" because that's where C18:1 ought to elute, and there was no further evidence that it was C18:1 (this was an FID system, so no mass or anything). In the end, she was so emotional and convinced the machine was right that I gave up trying to persuade her otherwise - it seemed too cruel. I think her boss just decided that the samples were weird. No idea what happened in the end.


I have had such encounters in the lab before. Some people will believe what a machine tells them but can not believe a person knows more than the machine.

On the other hand, I get more aggravated at the ones who just know the machine is broken because they could never have prepared a standard wrong. :)
The past is there to guide us into the future, not to dwell in.
Interesting article and responses. Unlike most (all?) posters above, I'm a generation Y scientist, working on developing chromatographic methods / troubleshooting for a whopping 3 years :oops: .. While I can not identify myself with everything written in 'my' section of the article, it's very true I have never packed a column myself or cut out and recorded the mass of my peaks on a balance. Hell, I've never injected something manually in a GC !

But I do endorse the fundamentals of chromatography, like I've learned during my studies and continually trying to expand my knowledge. While troubleshooting a problem, only half of my satisfaction comes from fixing the problem, while the other half is understanding what actually happened.

I'm planning to stay away from black box instruments, just like my company stays away from them. We run many different analyses, and buying an HPLC or GC for a single application is not our cup of tea.

In 30 years I might be telling my colleagues that, back in my time, we used ferrules and cut parts of GC columns (which was harder than it sounds) !
lmh certainly hit it on the head. We are busier than ever creating and validating methods, doing custom analyses and performing old-fashioned investigative chemistry because most labs are now filled with push-button technicians. There is not, and never will be, any substitute for experience and expertise, and if you only learn to push the buttons you will never acquire either.

"fossilocracy"? LMAO! I guess that really does describe some of us.
Mark Krause
Laboratory Director
Krause Analytical
Austin, TX USA
It's always fun to read articles like this, for a couple of reasons.

First, I'm always on the cusp of two generations (born in 1983, so X and Y/Millenial). Inevitably, I tend to share elements of both as described in those articles. I have a sibling who both identifies with and is quite adequately described by only one of those generations (Gen X, being as he's older than I am). So, it's fun in the same way that reading the horoscope is, sometimes.

Second, it's fun to see how the author conceives of the various generations. Separations like that are often influenced more by the stationary phase of the author than the mobile phase of society at large. What they see as the essential, defining aspects of the various generations is often as revealing about them as it is about us.

That said, I don't entirely agree with the author. I grew up on Windows 3.1 and Oregon Trail, I figured out how OS's worked because it was fun, and even though my education wasn't principally in Chemistry (I graduated with a degree in Molecular Biology, so more Gel Electrophoresis and PCR than GCMS or HPLC) I've thrown myself into it because that's the direction my career took.

I started working in a GC lab about 8 years back, and ever since I've been asking how the Gigantic Easy-Bake Oven actually worked. My boss at the time was substantially older than me, but was a mess of contradictions. On the one hand he was an amazing resource when it came to practical "how to make the thing do the thing" knowledge. On the other, he was never able to answer any of my theoretical questions about why pushing that particular button made the box go ding and give you good numbers. His concern was how to be productive at the end of the day, how to make his data "good enough" and how to maximize efficiency, not quality.

I had to teach myself about theory, method development, and even many aspects of instrument maintenance (such as why you clean certain parts certain ways, and how to track a problem back from a symptom to a cause to a solution). But I did teach myself those things, and I found that analysts even younger than me wanted to learn these things too. Gen Y or Gen Z may be typecast as not caring about what is going on inside the black box, but I promise you that truism isn't the whole story. We want to know, it's just that many folks won't take the time to teach us. We are also the generation of falling school budgets and soaring tuition costs, remember, and we didn't come through the generation-long learning environment of our older colleagues when it came to separation science.

The separation of generations as regards their approach to separation science may not be so simple, is I guess what I'm getting at. The younger generations wants to learn, too, we're not simply content to let the Thing Go Ding When There's Stuff.
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