Chemistry right for rewarding career
Laboratories may seem far removed from the real world, but lab technician David Chik finds that chemistry plays a prominent role in our daily lives, writes John Casey
AS A SCHOOLBOY, David Chik was attracted to chemistry more than the other sciences.
His interest continued and was nurtured during his undergraduate days and beyond at Baptist University, where he earned both graduate and postgraduate degrees, the latter a master's of philosophy earned through research in the field of inorganic chemistry.
He had his start as a lab technician at the behest of his supervisor, who happened to be the dean of the science faculty, Rick Wong. Professor Wong suggested he apply for an opening as a chemistry lab technician.
Mr Chik's student days are nearly 10 years behind him, but he still retains a strongly academic interest in chemistry.
'An interesting aspect of chemistry is that an unexpected result in an experiment can lead to an intriguing conclusion and trigger an innovative direction for research,' he said.
In a time of increasing public awareness about health threats caused by pollution, chemical additives in food and counterfeit medications, chemistry is assuming a more prominent role in people's lives.
'One of the major attractions of chemistry is its importance in our daily lives, as demonstrated by the recent malachite green scare in fish,' Mr Chik said.
Although no longer a student, Mr Chik finds aspects of the academic life to be still an important part of his day-to-day responsibilities.
'I am a lab technician, but my primary duties involve teaching,' he said. 'Often, I have to demonstrate experiments and give tutorial support to our undergraduate students.'
Mr Chik's responsibilities extend to technical support for the lab's various instruments, support for the chemistry faculty's research efforts and providing scientific testing as part of the university's consultancy services.
He also interacts with other universities in Hong Kong and, to an increasing extent, with those in the mainland, such as the Beijing Normal University, a tertiary institution focused on training teachers.
'This teaching support constitutes the principal difference between a lab technician in an academic institution and my counterparts in a commercial laboratory,' Mr Chik said.
A chemistry lab technician's work requires precision, and can be demanding. The aspiring lab technician should have an analytical mind and be meticulous beyond mere safety concerns.
'To be successful, a lab technician must have a good understanding of the instrumentation used in experiments and research, and understand the theory behind the instruments,' Mr Chik said. This applies equally to lab technicians in the academic arena and the commercial sector.
Lab instruments include the atomic absorption spectroscope, often used in the analysis of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, and the mass spectrometer, used to identify chemical compounds and in qualitative and quantitative analysis.
Communication is also important. At the university, it is essential to listen to and understand student needs.
'This is truly a two-way process,' Mr Chik said. 'There are areas where the experience of graduate students is more extensive than mine. You have to be diligent and willing to continue learning.'
Mr Chik also maintains that for professional development it is important to cultivate relationships with technicians from other universities, and take the opportunity to share information, knowledge and research.
The principal career paths for laboratory technicians lead to employment within academia and the commercial sector.
Many Baptist University graduates start their career inside a commercial lab.
'Laboratories are a growth industry, as they play a major part in monitoring and verifying quality standards,' said Mr Chik, who added that authorities in China had to bolster their efforts to verify that goods sold were genuine.
Hong Kong's transparent regulatory environment and its sound legal system inspire confidence among overseas companies about materials quality and safety regulation compliance. But this comes at a cost.
Consequently, some companies are setting up laboratories in the mainland to reduce costs by using less expensive Chinese professionals, and Baptist University in parallel is also developing channels of co-operation with Chinese universities.
'Thus there are many opportunities for fresh graduates to gain valuable experience working in the mainland,' Mr Chik said.
'Hong Kong commercial labs have a lot to offer the mainland as lab reports from Hong Kong organisations can be easily verified, the verification in turn is more readily accepted, and labs can also be more easily accredited.'
Meanwhile, the gap between lab technicians in universities and the private sector is narrowing. To make up for the shortfall in budgets caused by cuts in government education expenditure for tertiary labs in Hong Kong universities are increasingly providing consultancy services for the private and public sectors.
So after working in this industry for nearly 10 years, what is next for Mr Chik?
'I could possibly see myself working as an engineer in the instrumentation field, to support and repair scientific instruments,' Mr Chik said.
'Another direction in which I can see myself moving is as a university teacher. I have a lot of experience in instructing university students as part of my lab technician duties.
'Another area of interest in the future for me may be to research the pharmaceutical materials used in Chinese medicine,' he said.
While there may be changes in responsibilities, and Mr Chik may eventually move away from the laboratory, the knowledge he has gained from the profession is its own reward.
'Having a chemistry professional's understanding of the nature of chemicals has practical benefits in everyday life,' he said.
'Now that I have children, I pay close attention to the list of ingredients in products we buy at the supermarket.
'And thanks to my understanding of chemical reactions, I would never take drugs. This extends even to alcohol, which is essentially a solvent.'
CAN YOU PASS THE TEST?
Degree / qualification in a science
High level of technical skills and analytical capability
Expertise in using instrumentation
Ability to communicate with students, colleagues, contractors and professors
Senior laboratory technician at university
Bachelor's/master's degree in the relevant science, several years' experience
Laboratory technician at university
Bachelor's degree in the relevant science
Laboratory technician at commercial laboratory
Bachelor's degree in the relevant science