Celebrating staff: Chemistry Stores team

Take a peek behind the storeroom-door and meet the team that manages the Chemistry Stores in the Faculty of Science.

Katie Willis - 05 February 2021

As any student who has taken an undergraduate chemistry course at the University of Alberta can tell you, time in the lab is fundamental to studying chemistry. But who makes the labs possible? And where do the supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), and chemicals come from? 

The answer comes in the form of a team of staff members in the Department of Chemistry who manage the Chemistry Stores. Led by supervisor Andrew Yeung, this intrepid team is responsible for the acquisition and distribution of chemicals and equipment for both chemistry labs and research, as well as the dispensing of cryogens (like liquid nitrogen) and the disposal of chemical wastes. 

Over the past year, the Chemistry Stores team has adapted in many ways to serve students and researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic—from plexiglass to hand sanitizer and beyond. The countless and invaluable contributions of staff make the world go round in the Faculty of Science. Meet Michael Barteski, Matt Kingston, Ryan Lewis, Margaret Sisley, and Andrew Yeung—five members of the Chemistry Stores team. 

Job title and area:

Andrew: Supervisor of Chemistry Stores

Matt: Chemical Technician, Undergraduate Storeroom

Ryan: Materials Management Technician

Margaret: Chemical Technician, Undergraduate Storeroom

Michael: Research Storeperson

How long have you worked at the Faculty of Science? 

Andrew: Shortly after completing my undergraduate degree, I accepted a chemical technician position with Chemistry Stores in 1999—that means I’ve been with the Department of Chemistry for 21 years.

Matt: 12 years. 

Ryan: I joined the Faculty of Science in 2006, so I’ve been here for 14 years now. 

Margaret: This is my 36th year! I spent 20 years as Robert Jordan's research associate before joining the Stores Team in 2004.

Michael: I have worked in the Faculty of Science for two and a half years.

What is a typical day on campus like for you? 

Andrew: Everyday is different. There isn’t a single day where I haven’t encountered something that makes me scratch my head in wonder or bewilderment. If there is one thing that is consistent for me on a day-to-day basis, it is that I am constantly called to help with one emergency or another.

Matt: Drink a coffee. Help a person get something they need. Maybe clean up a chemical spill. Move a chemical from a large bottle into many smaller bottles. Restock the undergrad labs. Move something from one location to another. Tell a few jokes. Try to make someone smile. Eat lunch. Rinse and repeat.

Ryan: On a typical day, I dispense liquid nitrogen and look after receiving and shipping out packages and freight. As a part of Chemistry Stores, I also look after the stocking and ordering of liquid nitrogen, dry ice, and gas cylinders. On some days, I will carry out a furniture or equipment move for our researchers and, for a couple days a month, I will coordinate the disposal of our aged equipment inventory.

Margaret: In this past year I have been the Chem 10X storeperson, the Research Stores person (for five weeks while Mike was on vacation), a furniture mover (shifting store rooms and lab rooms), and the Chem 21X storeperson.

Michael: A combination of data entry and ordering, working directly with all research labs throughout all aspects of the Faculty of Science.

How has your work changed during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Andrew: My work has not changed, however, how I carry out that work has changed somewhat. Aside from the additional PPE and physical distancing, we are also cleaning and sanitizing equipment and surfaces a lot more frequently. We’ve also had to install plexiglass shields at the Stores transaction window and directional and distancing markers near the Stores window and in some of the teaching labs.

Matt: More personal protective equipment (PPE) and signage. We have to be more cognizant of spacing and the number of people in a room at a time. Signing in and out and thoroughly sanitizing spaces is the new normal. We also have a lot more custom solutions for the labs as they are different and each need to conform to the new guidelines in their own unique way, so we help the lab coordinators develop and implement workable solutions to keep everyone safe. This job has always been adaptive to its environment, but particularly so now. It’s nice to flex the creative muscles more regularly.

Ryan: Since the start of the pandemic, Chemistry Stores have remained open so that essential services and research in Chemistry was not disrupted. The biggest change as a result of the pandemic has been the loss of social interactions with both our internal and external clients. 

Margaret: There has been a lot more paperwork and cleaning! Seriously, I think the main difference is much less interaction with students. Normally I would see many first-year undergraduate students at our dispensing window every day. I did see analytical students, but there were very few at a time. It was a bit lonely some afternoons. Also there was more time to do things because of not having so many lab rooms to take care of or solutions to make. That was probably a good thing, since it left more time for all that moving from one room to another of the lab and stores equipment.

Michael: Since the pandemic I have had to make pivotal changes to help with both social distancing and group gathering measures by providing a structure for my labs within CCIS and the chemistry building as well as setting up new AHS parameters by having our Machine shop install plexiglass shields and providing sanitizer options for those who come to my window during the afternoons.

What's the most common question people ask you about your job? 

Andrew: It’s not necessarily a question, but a common misconception people assume about my job. A lot of people assume that I get the entire summer off simply because I work at an educational institution. Of course this is not the case, I work year round. In the spring and summer months, we are working to prepare and organize the teaching labs and supplies for the upcoming academic year. There is sometimes even more work in the summer than during the fall or winter semesters. 

Matt: Are you breaking bad? My answer is always yes.

Ryan: I don’t get asked a lot of questions about what I do in Chemistry Stores, but people are surprised to hear that I dispense liquid nitrogen and dry ice to many researchers and/or groups on campus.

Margaret: What do you do in the summer? A lot of people seem to think stores have nothing to do when labs aren't running. Actually we have a lot of lab clean-up, planning for the next fall and winter terms, ordering supplies and chemicals for those terms (without being entirely sure what the enrollment will be), having spring labs, and preparing vats of solution for Chem 10X or dispensing unknowns for the Chem 21X solutions. Not to mention filling in for Mike in basement stores, and finding time for my own vacation.

Michael: How do you know where everything is? 

Favourite memory from work? 

Andrew: I’ve accumulated about 21 years of memories from working in Chemistry Stores. Some memories make me laugh, others still leave me scratching my head, and there are even memories that were awkward and sad. I guess my favourite memories are the ones that include the people I have met and worked with over the years.

Matt: Convincing a $30,000 machine to start working again so that we can continue to recycle acetone. A small environmental benefit in the big scheme of things, but a step in the right direction, and one that we’re very proud of. Getting a brand new workspace has also been pretty incredible. It makes a huge difference to be operating new digs with new safety and storage features. 

Ryan: I don’t have one particular work memory I would call my favourite. Most of my cherished memories are those of the people I’ve met and become friends with. It’s the time I spent getting to know people and making a real personal connection with them that has made my time in Chemistry memorable.

Margaret: Moving into the very beautiful new second floor stores has to be well up there! Also being part of a really great team, both specifically the Stores team, and also the Chemistry department as a whole. 

Michael: My favorite memory is about how accepting people were of seeing an outsider come in and fill a role that had been maintained by a man who had been with the department for over 20 years.

Favourite thing about working at the Faculty of Science? 

Andrew: The best part about working in the Department and Faculty is the camaraderie and everyone’s willingness to help when and where they can. On the other hand, it is also rewarding to help someone else and then see that we contributed to something important for other departments within the Faculty of Science. 

Matt: My absolute favourite thing though is finding out about all of the environmental stuff that we are doing, particularly in Future Energy Systems (FES), and telling other people about how we’re trying to save the planet. I think that if we can get some of these ideas off the ground and into the market, we can make a serious impact on the world around us. I’ve always cared about the environment, and now because my boss and the university supported me through an MBA, I know how businesses can help the environment too. It’s not every day you find a job or a boss that offers you the flexibility and support you need to take on major educational opportunities while allowing you to take on work opportunities that build out your career to get you to a place that you want to be. 

Ryan: The best part about my job is being able to be an active part of the leading edge research that happens in the Faculty of Science. In fact, my name has appeared in the theses of a number of our graduate students as an acknowledgment of the support I provided to them. It makes me happy that I was able to help them succeed.

Margaret: Again, I think the sense of the whole Faculty of Science being a friendly, collegial place to work.

Michael: Talking with all the researchers old and new and seeing the sense of community they have with each other and being able to ask as many questions as possible and engaging with each of them, being able to be a listening ear when they need one or being an outside voice to turnaround a hectic and crazy day for them with a joke.