We are grieving the loss of Laura Wilkinson this week.
Laura had several different roles in the Boyer School. She was an adjunct professor in the chemistry department, teaching one of the General Chemistry labs. She was also a lab manager, a position split between the biology and chemistry departments. Those were her official titles, but of course she was much more than those words on paper. She was a wife, a mother to 4 children, a friend to everyone. She was gentle. Her smile was golden, as was her laugh. Our students learned from her and leaned on her for emotional support. Laura was fun to be around.
In her passing, I feel sorry that I didn’t know her better. I mean, really know her. We are a close-knit family here in the Boyer School, but we could be even closer. I am on sabbatical this semester, so I don’t see my colleagues as often as before. But even when I am teaching full time, I may not see some of my department colleagues for days as a time.
We have our offices on different floors. We teach in different classrooms. We sit in our offices more than is healthy, both in a physical sense as well as in a psychological sense. Laura’s death now awakens within me a renewed desire to forge stronger bonds among my colleagues here. (I’m just not sure how to do it).
The biology department posed for a group photo in 2011. Laura is pictured fourth from the left. I think the photo shows quite well how we got along as a family. Too bad we don't have a more recent shot. Let's do another!
Let me talk about Laura’s job as a lab manager, because that is likely an unfamiliar term to most people. It is an underappreciated yet essential position that makes our departments run efficiently. I am speaking specifically about Laura in this blog post, but I should point out that the biology department has another full time lab manager named Molly Grace. Molly works incredibly hard, and we are so appreciative of her skills, her dedication, her thoughtfulness, and her love.
The kinds of things that Laura did are the same types of things that Molly does. The two shared an office, and if I went to the office looking for Laura and she was not there, Molly would take care of my needs. The same was true when I needed Molly for something, and Laura would handle it.
So what is a Lab Manager?
Laura (and Molly) was in charge of setting up teaching labs so that the professors and students could walk in at the start of the lab session and everything was ready to go. The lab manager would also be in charge of putting things away at the end of the lab. The Dupre Pavilion’s lab facilities are used for different courses every day: mornings, afternoons, and evenings. It is a logistical puzzle for the lab managers to set up and take down labs in a way that does not interfere with other labs being offered by other professors. For example, when I teach Human Biology lab, I sometimes want to use equipment that Dr. Barnett or Fr. Shawn Anderson are also using in the same semester, but on different days. I rely on the lab managers to coordinate the use of the equipment, and then keep it out of the way of Fr. Shawn when I am using it and he is not, and to keep it out of my way when he is using it and I am not.
Laura (and Molly) had to prepare chemical mixtures used in lab, they had to make sure dishes were clean, furniture arranged, equipment was maintained in working order. They also had to do repairs when needed and order supplies. Since nearly every biology course has a three hour weekly lab session associated with it, Laura was kept very busy. In fact, it is too much for Laura and Molly to do, so they have a host of work-study students to help them with these tasks.
Laura (and Molly) would train the students to do lab procedures. No offense to our students, but this is a harder task than it sounds. It usually takes longer for a student to do something than it would take doing it yourself, and the outcome is a little less certain when you have students doing the work. Sometimes the work has to be done over again because of mistakes.
This is a very normal situation; everyone makes mistakes and takes a lot of time to do something when they are inexperienced. Laura was thus a teacher and mentor to students, even when she was working to meet a deadline. We all value the college work-study students for the work they do. I think they value the faculty and staff, too, for teaching them skills they would not otherwise acquire. As a coordinator of work-study students, Laura was an educator.
Lab managers have numerous administrative duties. Laura (and Molly) had to keep track of supply and chemical inventories and order more when the departments were running low. Laura had to keep spending within a tight budget. In fact, she had to manage the budget related to the work-study positions. We need enough work-study students to keep up with the work, but not too many students and not too many hours, or else we run out of money.
I don’t have the time to list everything that Laura did for the biology and chemistry departments, but at least now you know a little more about her role than you did before.
For an even better idea, I want to use Laura’s own words, taken from selected emails sent to me and my colleagues over the last couple years. In these emails you will see how hard-working she was, and how helpful she was. We will miss her greatly.
“The work study students… and I have entered all of the GREEN INORGANIC chemicals into the computer system with barcodes and scanner. We did not do all of the chemicals yet because we want to do a trial run with the software this semester with the most commonly used chemicals.”
“Molly and I arranged to have access to [a campus storage] space next Monday. We will be going there at 9:30-1pm and with the help of some FMO guys will be bringing up the shelving and other large items. Molly and I will also bring up all the consumable type stuff and smaller items in my van.”
“Hello All, [we are] looking for sodium cyanide. Does anyone have it?”
“Just a reminder to have your TAs take used [dissection] specimens to the… freezer at the end of lab. If they stay in the lab overnight they get pretty stinky!”
“Jim, where do you want to have the frog anatomy TA meeting Wednesday? I can put the stuff on a cart in N204 if you like.”
“Hi Everyone, it’s Molly’s Birthday tomorrow stop by and wish her a happy birthday and have a doughnut from Dainty Pastries!”
Laura: “Hi Jim, I was wondering if you had any of those large petri dishes left that the student used last year? I need them for tomorrow if you have them. “
Me: “Oh yes! They are in a box on the left side of my research lab with the name “Kellam” in big letters. Take the whole box. I was meaning to give them away.”
Laura: “Whoop whoop! You saved the day!!!!”
“Hey there Jim, I’m back here ready for action. Are you still the lead for Gen Bio this semester? I was hunting the syllabus if you are. See you soon! Let me know if you need anything at all.”
“Hello Jim, I wondered if you guys will be changing the specimens for Gen Bio for the fall dissection labs. I have about $400 left to spend in the GB budget and I usually buy some of the specimens.”
“Hey Jim, it was me that got freaked out by the [bird holding] tent, but only because it was dark when I left last night, and unexpected. It doesn’t bother me there at all! I think it’s a really cool example of science on display :) and that your projects are worthwhile! “