Laboratory Technicians

Chenyu Lin | chenyu.lin@yale.edu October 1, 2010

Behind every championship team, there is always a dedicated support crew of equipment managers, trainers, and even water boys. For the sake of the team, they tirelessly toil away at their jobs, remaining all but invisible to the rest of the world. Without them, that Super Bowl or NBA championship would be unattainable, yet they hardly ever receive recognition in the post-game interviews. In the world of scientific research, the equivalent of this supporting crew are the laboratory technicians. They are the ones performing the breakthrough experiments and providing the sustenance for the lab—yet they remain in the background, seldom recognized and too often forgotten.

There is no consensus on the definition for who qualifies as a “lab tech.” They come from a variety of educational backgrounds and can have anything from a high school diploma to Bachelors and Masters Degrees. However, there is typically no required background knowledge to get a position. The training often occurs on-site, so the laboratory technicians can come in relatively inexperienced and learn how to do their jobs in the first few months.

One quality that laboratory technicians do share is the way they view their job—that is, as a permanent one. Many laboratory technicians have already been in the profession for many years and plan to stay, barring any unfortunate circumstances. Hedy Sarofin, Chief MRI Technologist at the medical school, has been working as a lab tech for over twenty years and started off as an X-ray technician. Like others at the MRI center, for the foreseeable future, she plans to continue working at Yale because she “loves it here.”

A typical day for Hedy begins at 6:30 in the morning. She comes in early to power up all the machines and to take care of administrative work before her first MRI appointment. For the rest of the day, she performs scans for various research groups on campus. Hedy’s average day is analogous to that of many other laboratory technicians at Yale—early to rise, early to leave, but always diligently working the full 8-hour day.

Leslie Melton, a laboratory technician at the Regan lab, notes that the early arrival time of those in her profession is a necessity. “It’s all about having everything prepared for the post-docs and graduate students,” she said. “So when they come in, they can have everything they need to get started.” Like Hedy at the MRI center, Leslie reports to her job at 6 A.M., about two hours before the average graduate student shows up. Leslie also handles administrative work, such as billing, in addition to her usual tasks of preparing agar plates, growing cells, cleaning glassware, and just generally making sure that the lab is well-stocked.

When asked if the job ever gets dull, both Hedy and Leslie admitted that the protocols can be repetitive, but there is usually so much to do and so many different experiments to follow that things rarely ever slow down. Furthermore, there is a definite advantage to repetitive protocols. “It’s an independent working environment,” Hedy explained. “Every day, I know what I’m going to do; it’s not sporadic.”

The fact that they work at Yale also helps to keep things interesting. “The lab is constantly changing people, and people come in from all over the world,” Leslie explained. “It’s great to meet all these new people and learn about all their different cultures.” Kim Zichichi, an electron microscopy technician at the medical school, echoed similar sentiments: “Working at Yale has helped me learn to communicate with a lot of people from all sorts of different backgrounds. I can listen and be patient and not be as flustered about the language barrier anymore.” All in all, everyone agreed that working at an institution like Yale has its perks. There are health insurance benefits, holidays, and various other personal benefits granted by the university in addition to a “fairly competitive salary,” as Hedy put it.

Some in the research industry consider laboratory technicians to be like the manual laborers of the real world. However, what most people do not realize is that while the life of a laboratory technician is perhaps not as glamorous as that of a principal investigator, it holds distinct advantages in having a stable salary, diverse opportunities to meet new people and learn new things, and above all, a consistent daily schedule that leaves plenty of time for one’s personal life—vastly differing from the life of a graduate student, as detailed in our next issue.

Unlike the many students working in these labs, who regard their current situation as a stepping stone toward a more profitable future, most laboratory technicians have already committed to their jobs. This is where they plan to stay, and more importantly, they enjoy what they do. “I love this job,” Kim affirmed. “And when I go back on Monday, I’ll be ready and excited to work again.”