Lab Technician plays little-known but essential role at school

March 29, 2019 — by Manasi Garg

Wearing a white lab coat, carefully organizing various substances while mixing chemicals together in a test tube, the science department’s lab technician, Cynthia Cheng, feels at home in the rooms of the science building.

Although few students may know that the school has a lab technician, Cheng’s job is integral in keeping science classes running.

The school introduced the position of lab technician in the 2017-2018 school year at the request of the science department. The hiring allowed teachers to focus more on other duties such as lesson planning, grading and helping students, assistant principal Brian Thompson said.

For chemistry honors and physics teacher Jenny Garcia, having a lab technician has been a blessing.

“It takes a huge burden off the process of being a science teacher,” Garcia said. “I spend more time with other parts of my life involving school. Time you aren’t spending running around looking for materials or setting up labs, you are spending making sure your curriculum is better and more appropriate, and it gives us more time to work together as teachers.”

Garcia also said she tries new labs with Cheng before deciding whether or not to incorporate them into a class’s curriculum.

Cheng’s responsibilities as lab technician are vast and vary day by day. Her primary role is to help science teachers prepare for upcoming labs by setting up materials, equipment, tools and chemicals. She creates solutions with the right molarity and amount of chemical solution, sets up and takes down labs, orders and purchases chemicals from Flinn Scientific and delivers and picks up the various equipment and supplies.

For Cheng, her job is the culmination of her childhood dreams. Growing up, she remembers both of her parents working as scientists at universities in Hong Kong — her father was a Chinese medicine researcher and her mother worked with a biology professor — so she envisioned her future would be spent working in a lab as well. Even throughout her high school years, Cheng loved science and working in the lab.

“I think I did all the experiments for my group all those years when I was in high school, and I especially liked doing chemistry labs,” Cheng said.

As she grew older, Cheng’s interests took a new direction. Although she went to school in Hong Kong until 11th grade, in her senior year of high school, she and her family moved to North Carolina. There, she discovered new interests outside of the lab to pursue.

“I guess here in the U.S., there’s a lot more different options I can choose in college,” Cheng said, “but in Hong Kong it was limited; we could only choose between business or science paths.”

While becoming a lab scientist may have been her dream throughout her childhood, Cheng ultimately went to North Carolina State and majored in electrical engineering because she had discovered she enjoyed the logical and problem solving aspects of engineering, and also because it was something “new for her, and for a lot of other girls.” Cheng eventually obtained a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Stanford University.

Although she had considered getting a PhD degree as well, Cheng decided to join the workforce immediately after earning her master’s. For 20 years after graduating  with a master’s from Stanford, Cheng worked as a hardware engineer. Then, six years ago, she quit her job to spend spend more time with her children.

But she discovered she didn’t like being a stay-at-home mom only, saying she “isn’t a person who can sit at home and do nothing.”

Returning to work, she had her first job was as a librarian at the Campbell library.

Additionally, she began to volunteer at Argonaut Elementary School because one of two her daughters attended it at the time, and for the past four years she has worked as Argonaut’s lead art docent coordinator, a job that requires her to remain organized and work hands on.

After having volunteered consistently at her daughters’  schools, a friend suggested that she look into getting a job at Argonaut school. Cheng went on the district’s employment website to see what jobs were available. Although she was originally looking for jobs at Argonaut, a posting for an SHS science lab technician immediately “caught her eye and her heart.”

“Applying to this job was a very different experience for me,” Cheng said. “This was the first time after college that I ever had to ask others to write recommendation letters for me, and I had to dig out my high school and college diplomas after more than 20 years.”

Cheng had to submit her resumé and three recommendation letters that she obtained from the principal of Argonaut, a teacher she had worked with, and a colleague from her previous engineering job. She also went through an interview process with Thompson.

“We were looking for people who understood science and chemicals an lab equipment and also had a passion for helping kids and being supportive of our teachers, and Ms. Cheng has that background,” Thompson said. “She has a background in working with families and students who love science and is someone who wanted to do a little bit more to help our school. I thought she fit all of the descriptors that we needed.”

Cheng has said the problem solving skills she acquired from her previous job, engineering, has allowed her to succeed at her current job, even when there are multiple labs to prepare in a day and other responsibilities to take care of.

She works as lab tech for the full school days on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and in the afternoons on Thursdays and Fridays. She typically works at Campbell Library on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, and on Friday and Saturday for a few hours, although her shifts occasionally change. She purposefully has flexible hours at the library so she can spend time at the school prepping for any labs, catching up on work, or helping teachers out when needed.

Garcia said that having a lab technician is also comforting because it provides the teachers with a dependable resource to trust in case something goes wrong.

“If we’re doing the egg drop in physics and I forget to drop the eggs, there’s someone who can go to the grocery store and get them.” Garcia said. “You’re not as stressed out because you know there’s a fallback.”

Although it has only been six months, Cheng has found being a lab technician to be one of the most rewarding jobs she has taken on.

“I really enjoy working with everyone at SHS, especially all the science teachers,” she said. “I am learning a lot from them, and even then there's still more to learn. The best part is knowing that students are learning from these labs. Hopefully, my job makes a little positive impact on their lives and their learning experiences.”

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