I had a really nice long lunch of Pho with my friend Michelle on Thursday. Michelle is the only woman I know with a college degree in science. She works in a blood lab down in San Antonio. I had warned her in advance that my concept of laboratories was limited to what I learned from Bugs Bunny cartoons
. She gave me a grand tour of her lab.
First off, there was no blinking neon sign that read "EVIL SCIENTIST - BOO!" And while there were no open flasks of colored water boiling over Bunsen burners, there were two sealed containers filled with two different solvents that fed into a top-of-the-line mass spectrometer. Michelle programs what percentage of each solvent goes into the machine. (I believe she was looking for Vitamin B in particular that day.) It takes up to 12 hours to gently separate the part of the blood she needs to test from the rest of the sample. The lab is also equipped with a nitrogen generator, and has a workstation equipped with a fume hood. She uses the nitrogen to force blood serum through a sieve.
Once you know what the machinery is and what it does, it's actually a very simple procedure. Refrigerate blood. Separate with nitrogen & sieve to get blood serum. Fill plastic tray with tubes of serum (2 blanks, 4 controls, followed by the actual testing samples). Seal tray and put it into spectrometer. Set the controls and adjust the range for what you are looking for. Send the waste to the biowaste bucket. Read results. Print and distribute results to doctors.
Michelle's one of the few people in the whole area who has this fancy (very expensive) machinery in her lab and knows how to use it. (Can you say job security? Hell yes.) And since the process takes 12 hours, she has a fresh-out-of-college minion who works the night shift. I didn't get to meet the minion, but Michelle has a very high opinion of him. "He made the mistake of majoring in bio, but luckily he minored in chemistry. That got him the job here."
Michelle is very supportive about me going back to school and getting a degree in the sciences. (She went to a small university herself, so she understood why I prefer UT Dallas over UT Austin.) She also says that I will love
calculus ("The lights will go on and you'll realize that everything else you learned in math was leading up to it."), and that organic chemistry rocks
("It's p-chem that sucks.") She gave the big thumbs up to engineering. Any sort of engineering. "Because that is something that leads to doing something in the real world." Just before I left, she said that she would write me a letter of recommendation...which was completely unexpected, but totally cool of her to offer. :-)
My next steps are to sign up for Physics, Chem and Math at Austin Community College, and then contact my old place of employment and talk with Real Live Engineers. I know there are at least two female engineers there, but I don't know if they are electrical engineers or something else. I'm not discounting other flavors of engineering, mind you. It's just that I already have an interest in EE.
Speaking of other flavors of engineering, Monday I have a workday with Edwin. He is a board member at large for Scare For A Cure
, an interactive haunted house event that raises money for local charities. Edwin is crazy-smart. He's written articles that were published in MAKE magazine and has a pyro license. He manufactures all sorts of weird devices and special effects. You need to cast a realistic rubber hand? He can do that. You need a festering wound that fizzes for your zombie outfit? He can do that. You need giant tubes of fire that will shoot flames to various heights according to the volume of music being played? He can do that. Oh yes, he will be very happy
to do that.
If anyone has a blinking neon sign reading "MAD SCIENTIST - BOO!" it is certainly Edwin.