Laboratory – From Curiosity to Career

I am blessed to be able to study in Wah Yan College, Kowloon which is a well-run secondary school in Hong Kong.  It was endowed with a very spacious and wholesome campus, featuring many desirable and above-average, if not outstanding, facilities for academic enhancements as well as those for sports/recreation. There were two large football/soccer fields (one grass pitch and a sandy one), an outdoor basketball field, a detached school hall, just to mention a few.  The school was also immersed in admirable reputation and excellent traditions.  I believe that almost invariably all attending students received a fine secondary school education.  For my teenage mind, one amenity of the school, which drew my special attention, was the on-site laboratory.  There was not just one science laboratory; in fact, there was a separate laboratory for each of the three science subjects: physics, chemistry and biology.   This was very impressive to me and, most likely, also enviable in the eyes of many other secondary schools in Hong Kong.

From Form 3 (equivalent of grade 9), we started to formally study science, even though it was still general science.  This opened up the horizon for me, as the science teachers occasionally brought the students to observe science demonstrations in the laboratories.  I could hardly wait for Form 4 to finally arrive.  The chance to roll up the sleeves and actually start doing some laboratory exercises myself was exciting to me.

The world at that era, including Hong Kong, was not very knowledgeable about and not too concerned about personal safety (including safety in the laboratory).  Of course, the current western world is much more heavily regulated, especially with laboratory safety.  For example, the presence of large Bunsen burner open flames, fuelled by coal gas; working with strong or corrosive acids and alkalis without wearing appropriate protective gears (safety eye glasses, face masks, gloves etc); the use of large test tubes; and the experimentation with large quantities of dangerous chemicals most likely have all been banned now-a-days.  The only protective clothing which the students wore inside the laboratory was a white lab coat.  As a teenage student at that time, while not worried or dampened by safety concern, I found the exposure to science laboratories inspiring and fascinating.  Little did I know then that my career would subsequently turn out to be in the (clinical) laboratory field.

In the physics laboratory, the kinds or pieces of equipment available (e.g., potentiometer, calorimeter, magnet and iron filings, tuning fork) were mostly crude or not sophisticated, in hind sight.  In spite of that, I found at least some of the physics laboratory exercises were rather thought-provoking.  I remember placing a small compass on the various locations on a large piece of white cardboard paper laid on the benchtop and marking the direction of the compass pointer and then finally joining all the directed points to extrapolate to determine the magnetic north pole.  Another endeavor was to work with a tuning fork to find resonance.  This helped me to better comprehend what was sound resonance even though I was never good or proficient at finding that elusive resonance point.  I also had the experience of working with a classical (centre-pivoted) beam balance.  Needless to say, at present, the classical beam balance is probably found only in museums.

Biology laboratory was one of my favorites because it exposed me to a rather wide range of living organisms of the creation, for instance, from flowers to earthworm, cockroach, rat, and dogfish.  Exercises to dissect various living things and display different organ systems were to me difficult but rather helpful to appease my curiosity.  I still remember trying hard to attain the goal of displaying intact the salivary glands of a cockroach and blood vessel system of a rat.  The study and dissection of some common local flowers, including Bauhinia (the Hong Kong flag symbol) and the red Hibiscus, seemed intriguing as well as interesting.  The exposure to biology subsequently became one of the determining factors for me to choose to major in biology in my undergraduate education at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.

I was far from being strong in chemistry, however, the colorful, “firework-like” chemistry laboratory exercises were eye-openers to me.  Two colorless chemical solutions instantly changing into a coIored precipitate, when mixed, was almost like magic to me.  I did not mind sensing the rotten-egg smell of the black hydrogen sulphide gas or the pungent odour of the green chlorine fume.  The visual appeal of the various colored compounds, such as the purple (grape colored) potassium permanganate, orange sodium dichromate, pale green ferrous sulphate, blue copper sulphate, and the pink phenolphthalein, left indelible memories in me as a young student.

Later in my academic pursuit when I did postgraduate laboratory research at McMaster University, I needed to find some appropriate pieces of laboratory equipment for my experiments.  As an example, I would need to perform distillation and subsequent condensation.  Somehow at that point, some basic laboratory techniques which I came across or learnt in my secondary school chemistry flashed back in my mind. The recollection helped me to identify and use a glass water jacket condensation apparatus to do the job.

At the end of my university education, I needed to decide on which profession to pursue.  Since laboratory was my inclination or preference, I chose to study further medical laboratory science. After didactic study and clinical training in clinical laboratory technology, I landed a starting job in one of the diagnostic laboratories at Sunnybrook Medical Centre, Toronto.  The rest was history, as people say.  I am blessed to be able to remain or hang on in the clinical laboratory field for my entire career.

I had witnessed the amazing advances in medical laboratory methodologies and instrumentation.  Now-a-days, with the advent of highly sophisticated and almost fully automated laboratory analyzers, the possession of manual dexterity is no longer an absolute pre-requisite to work in laboratory.  Anyway, during the last 20+ years of my career, I had been remote from the work bench and did not need to touch a test tube or a tube of blood.  Nevertheless, even now, some basic ideas of laboratory are still entrenched in my mind.  Now, I still vividly remember what my Form 4 chemistry teacher, Mr. Yue Poon Leung, seriously stressed again and again and solemnly warned the students about ; when diluting strong acids, NEVER, NEVER add water to the acid, always add acid to water.

Many students and fellow schoolmates had gone through the laboratories in our secondary school.  But for me, the experience in these laboratories had been special and had profound impact on the rest of my life.