A few months ago, we celebrated three years since we moved from Frimley to our state-of-the-art facility in Farnborough. To mark the recent anniversary, among other things, we've also launched the new South East Water Scientific Services blog. We would like to use the opportunity provided by the publication of our first article to give you a virtual tour of the lab.
Crypto testing, now a routine for many private and public water supplies
As you walk in from the Main Reception, you will first encounter on your left the Cryptosporidium laboratory, part of the Microbiology department. As the name suggests, the activity of this section is focused on finding Cryptosporidium oocysts in water samples. Although other tests are being carried out (i.e. Giardia cysts, Blue-Green Algae), the emphasis is on identifying this type of protozoan. Today, Cryptosporidium analysis is routinely performed for both private and public water supplies. Senior Analyst Minka Dimitrova has been working for South East Water for 15 years and she believes the technology used for Crypto testing has come a long way since she first started.
“Years ago, there was a lot more manual handling involved in our analyses which often led to higher variations in the results obtained. Things that you wouldn’t normally think about, like physical fitness, could have made a difference, as the analyst would manually action the pumps and maintain a certain rhythm. Now, all our elution stations are automatic and, in addition to the consistency of our results, we are also able to provide much quicker turnaround times. Our method is highly complex, as it involves many stages, but thanks to our competent and experienced staff, we are able to continuously provide excellent results in terms of both quantity and quality”, Minka explained, while pointing out another interesting fact about the Crypto laboratory.
The Senior Analyst added that stringent security used to be “a thing” back in the day, with only a few people having access to the lab and samples. As it was included in routine monitoring programmes, Crypto testing was better understood and started being treated as any other microbiological tests, like coliforms and E. coli, which can all be harmful to human health.
“My reasons for working in this field for so many years and enjoying my role are related to the importance of our work, which is mainly focused on providing safe to drink water to our customers. Also, my hard working team makes me come in with pleasure every day”, Minka concluded.
Coliform bacteria, an indicator of a potential problem
Continuing down the corridor, next on the left is the Microbiology lab, where we test samples for different types of bacteria. The most prevalent analyses to mention for this section would be Coliforms, E Coli, Enterococci, Pseudomonas (Species and aeruginosa), Clostridium Perfringens, Total Viable Count (TVC) and Legionella testing. Coliform bacteria are common in the environment and, although they are not always harmful, their presence in drinking water may indicate a treatment or network problem. This is why coliforms tests are very common in the Micro lab. Water companies and private water supply owners use these as indicators that the water may be contaminated with disease causing bacteria.
“I actually started my role at SEW in the Crypto department, where I spent five years. Being interested in the challenge, I expressed my interest when a new position became available in Micro. Another almost five years have passed since then and, thinking in retrospective, I can say that my current role is more “full-on”, because of the bigger variety of tests we perform and methods we use. The number of samples received for Micro analyses has increased significantly over the years. Although this keeps us extremely busy, I am glad to say that we manage to stay on top of our workload with the help of a great, reliable, team of people with years of experience. There are many things to do in our fast-paced environment and we enjoy helping each other out when things get a bit crazy. Even if each of us may be focused on a specific method, we are more than happy to give a hand with other tests”, said Phil Matthews, Microbiology Senior Analyst. He also shared some great news about a new method his department is currently working on validating, Pseudalert.
“We hope to complete the validation process as soon as possible, as the new method will be very useful for customers wanting their results quicker. The plan is to be able to process a larger number of samples and provide a faster turnaround time”, Phil mentioned. As a side note, the Senior Analyst talked about another interesting aspect of working for SEW, the training opportunities. Phil has recently completed a Project Management course and he is currently working on fulfilling the next level, which is the Prince 2 Practitioner.
The development of Organic Chemistry
On the right side of the hallway, we have the Taste and Odour, Organic and Inorganic Chemistry labs.
The Organic Chemistry section is concentrating its activity on pesticides and disinfection by-products. The best example of DBPs are Trihalomethanes, which, just like Coliforms, are used as an indicator for a potential problem. THMs are commonly occurring classes of by-products formed during disinfection with chlorine and chloramine. There are other DBPs, however, THMs are keeping our colleagues from Organics very busy, because they are expected to occur at higher levels. That is why their presence is representative and used as a benchmark for most public and private water supplies, where disinfection is based on chlorine. Senior Organic Analyst Becks Marriner has been working for SEW for the past two years and she was drawn to her role by the different technical aspects.
“I enjoy troubleshooting instruments and investigating failures. We run very technical equipment and, although sample numbers are lower for us, it takes much longer to prepare for the testing, perform the analyses and process the obtained data. I’ve been working as an Organic Chemist for six years and I can say that there has been a massive shift in the way we do our tests, especially due to advances in mass selective detection using Liquid Chromatography instruments which has vastly improved sensitivity and selectivity. In the past we needed two days for sample preparation and long run times, we can now do minimum preparation while the run time is also decreased. This has permitted us to provide faster turnaround times and process larger numbers of samples”, Becks stated.
9K samples tested every week in the Inorganics lab
As mentioned before, another important section within our premises focuses on Inorganic Chemistry. Our analysts based in this part of the lab are testing water samples for physical parameters, compounds like metals, nutrients and much more. Tom Harrison has been working for SEW for four years and this is his first scientific role since he graduated from Kent University, where he studied Biology.
"Moving to the new facility, three years ago, enabled the analysts and the lab itself to evolve with new methods and equipment. The space assigned to Inorganics has more than doubled as a result of our relocation, allowing us to process more samples and run more state-of-the-art instruments. We’ve increased our sample turnover from 3-4K to around 9K per week and we brought the lab into the 21st Century with high performance software, enabling us to report massive quantities of data every day. At the same time, we ensure quality remains at the forefront of what we do", Tom Harrison, Senior Inorganic Analyst, shared for our blog.
Detailing the challenges his department is facing on a daily basis, Tom spoke about the limited amount of time his team has to report results for a large number of samples. Referring to what makes him tick, Tom stated that he enjoys seeing everyone working towards a common goal.
"I get my kicks when the lab is running at full capacity and every cog is turning in sync with everything else, so that we can process our samples within the restricted timeframe. I also enjoy getting stuck in and hands on with instrumentation and fixing any occurring issues", Tom said.
Sample Reception, where it all starts
Although it may not seem fair to our colleagues in Sample Reception to leave them for the end of our post, there is a reason for this.
Sample Reception is where all the “fun” actually starts. This is where samples are received and processed for each different department, where we ensure correct bottles are used and required forms are completed. It is essential work, as the trajectory of each sample throughout the lab is drawn in our Sample Reception.
“I believe this can be a very good starting point for anyone with an interest in working in our lab and developing a successful career. My role has empowered me to be able to answer questions coming from almost each department in our facility. I’ve also had the opportunity to gain significant knowledge in LIMS, which is essential for this line of work, as we use our Sample Manager system to process everything we receive for testing”, explained Sophie Cass, Laboratory Services Analyst. Speaking about why she loves her job, Sophie mentioned that she enjoys being the main point of contact for most of our customers and getting to know them.
“I think there is a lot of pressure on Reception at times, to process the samples as quickly as possible, while ensuring all the information is recorded correctly. Unfortunately, if something goes wrong in here, if can affect each department in the lab, so it is essential to get things done right from the beginning rather than trying to fix them later. Having a good working relation with our customers alleviates some of the pressure”, Sophie added.
We hope you enjoyed this short lab tour, and if you have an interest in our work or services, we are more than happy to answer any of your questions. Please use the link below to contact our Commercial team.