Diana Gorda is a lab specialist at James Madison HS in Brooklyn, where she works to make sure that science teachers and the school’s 4,000 students have everything they need to perform safe and engaging laboratory experiments.
How did you come to be a lab specialist?
I grew up in Ukraine and graduated from Kiev University with a master’s in chemistry. Shortly after coming to New York, I worked in the lab of a private chemical company that manufactured plastic additives. Later in life, as my kids were getting older, I always participated in their schools and I started thinking about how to combine my lab work with the educational process. That’s what brought me to the position of lab specialist. After taking the exams and getting my license as a lab specialist, I was offered a job at Madison HS. This is my 12th year, and I’m still happy here.
What are your responsibilities as a lab specialist?
I’m responsible for the preparation of labs in chemistry, physics and earth science. I maintain our lab equipment — the balances, Bunsen burners, etc. — and our chemical inventory. I order supplies for the lab and the science department. Fire safety is another very important aspect of my job, so I’m the holder of the C-14 Certificate of Fitness for hazardous materials.
What’s an example of what it means to prepare a lab?
Next week in chemistry, we have a heat transfer lab. Each station needs two Styrofoam cups with metal breeches, two thermometers in each cup. That’s a simple example. Most of the day all the labs are occupied. There is very limited time during the day when the lab is available and I have access to it to set up or reset. I have to be very well-prepared and organized; I have everything ready in my prep room and then when I have access, I rush there to set it up.
Do you have any particular favorite labs to prepare?
The second semester of chemistry is a lot more challenging than the first. Students start to do titration labs and reaction labs — those are really engaging and involving and relatively long for kids to perform. Those are more interesting for me to do. A titration lab, for example, is a method of finding an unknown concentration of a base or an acid. I prepare a certain concentration of an acid and an unknown concentration of a base for students to determine using an indicator. They have to try to titrate it, and they need practice to do it well.
You’re the sole lab specialist in your school. How do you keep up with the latest knowledge?
I’m trained by the UFT at least once a year — on things like maintenance and chemicals and storage procedures — and those trainings are very helpful. I get to interact with other lab specialists, and we exchange our experiences. I also discuss a lot with the chemistry, physics and earth science teachers after a lab. If something didn’t go as well as it was supposed to, or if something did go well, I’m aware of it.
What part of your job is the most rewarding?
My student monitors, of course. I have about eight of them who come to the lab throughout the day to help me prepare solutions and set up labs. A lot of them stay with me for two to three years, some all four. Besides assisting me with daily activities, we have conversations about their homework, course selections, SAT prep and the college application process — which I’m very familiar with because I went through it twice with my own kids. Some of my monitors have taken my advice in selecting colleges and stay in touch with me after graduation; I just got invited to a student’s concert at Hunter College. I get very academic, highly motivated kids in my lab, and I really enjoy dealing with them.
What would you want other teachers to know about what it means to be a lab specialist?
I think I am a link between teachers and students. I don’t only prepare labs; I consider myself an educator who gives students hands-on experience and practical knowledge. My goal is that students connect what they do in the lab with what they learned in class. They get the hands-on practice that proves the theory.