Ilya 1/2/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Today Ilya crossed my mind. After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, but before beginning my Ph.D., I worked with Ilya as an analytical chemist at an environmental lab, one of many built on the EPA Superfund, and lost after the funding dried up. The Superfund was highly effective, actually, and something that people have forgotten about. Prior to the Superfund, our environment was in serious trouble. The Ohio River outside of Cleveland caught on fire several times, and the soot in the air in New York City was so bad that rose quartz buildings were turning grayish black. People don’t remember what it was like forty years ago, which is why many of the regulations that have helped to clean the environment have been rolled back.

The nation was divided into “regions”, with different Superfund labs assigned to various regions. We were working the Northeast region of the country, and were testing water, soil, oil and air for pesticides, herbicides, asbestos and PCB’s (an additive that used to be used in transformer oil). One of the soil samples we received was so high in DDT that it knocked one of our highly attuned instruments offline for about a month as we cleaned and recleaned it. The instruments were tuned to detect pesticides in the parts-per-million range, but this sample was estimated to be 30%. The EPA would take these samples and send them to the Superfund labs. If the contamination was over a certain percentage, they could bring lawsuit to the landowner, if possible, although it often was not because the company that owned it was out of business, or it was a plot owned by the military. Regardless of lawsuits, if the contamination was too high the EPA would “mitigate”, meaning they cleaned it up to bring the levels back down.

This little lab where I worked had hired me fresh out of college to work on their GC/MS, one of the premiere instruments in analytical chemistry even today. They didn’t want to pay the salary expected for experienced chemists on this instrument, so they hired me to fix it, learn it and use it. Which I did. Ilya worked on a GC/FID, similar instrument (GC, or “Gas Chromatograph, designed to separate out the individual components of a mixture in the gaseous state) but with a different detector (mine as an MS, or Mass Spectrograph that smashed apart the components and looked at the mass of the resulting pieces, versus FID, or “Flame Ionization Detector”, that burned the components and looked for the ion signature). Both are widely used today. For example, in modern forensic labs, the GC/FID is used for blood alcohol analysis, and the GC/MS is used in narcotics labs.

Ilya was a good, solid chemist. He came from Iran and had a moderate but somehow still incomplete grasp of the English language. His wife, sill in Iran, called him at work one day. The three women working in the front office all came back, excited to share the news with him, excitedly saying, “Ilya, you lucky dog, your wife is on the phone!” He replied, “Yes, I am lucky dog, because I work with a bunch of bitches.” He meant no offense but simply assumed that if he is a dog, then it must be okay to call them dogs as well and the female dog is “bitch”. Innocent intention notwithstanding, the three turned and stormed out in a huff, the last one looking at me and snapping, “YOU explain it to him!!!”

Poor guy. He rather liked me, by the way. One day he explained to me how he created his calibration curve out of three standards of different concentrations, but, he said, if he eliminated one of the three, his correlation of linearity for the other two standards was always 100%. I pointed out to him that a two-point calibration curve will always give 100% linear correlation because two points define a line. He thought I was brilliant after this.

But he wasn’t treated fairly. One day he asked what my salary was. Still new and “wet behind the ears”, I caved and told him. That definitely got me into a lot of trouble, because immediately he complained. Well, first of all, he thought I gave him my hourly rate while I gave the annual salary, but beyond that, he was severely underpaid. My supervisor, in chewing me out, told me that Ilya had basically “hired himself”. Desperate for a job, he walked in (back when you could still do that) and offered to work so cheaply that they couldn’t say no. Basically, he wanted to prove himself to them in the hopes that eventually they would pay him what his experience and abilities were actually worth.

Unfortunately, that’s not how American industry works. As we learn time and time again with financial incentives that are rarely spent where they are supposed to be (consider the loans that were meant to go to small businesses to protect salaries, yet largely went to enormous corporations and were spent on stock buybacks), businesses have no ethics, or at least are not as ethical as we hope they would be. Ilya made the mistake of underselling himself, and as long as he continued to work there, the company was happy to continue exploiting his talents while stuffing the money he deserved into their own pockets.

I don’t know where Ilya is today, but I hope he is doing well and happy.

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