Story and Photo by Rob Andrilla
Blanche Bybee is a jack of all trades at Whatcom Community College. She is the science lab supervisor, as well as an advocate of sustainability on Whatcom’s campus and in the community.
“I do about a million things,” Bybee said with a smile. She said her main responsibility is to oversee the laboratories that chemistry and biology students use in Kulshan Hall. Bybee’s job is to keep machines like microscopes and Bunsen burners, as well as other supplies, in working order.
Bybee also orders chemicals and supplies for the labs and prepares them for whatever they will be used for. In the past she has had to order a wide variety of items for the class, from reagents to create chemical reactions to vinegar, eggs and sheep eyes. “The business offices must laugh at the expanse of things we order,” Bybee said.
Some of the most widely used components of experiments are surprisingly not acids or jellyfishes to dissect, but something much more ordinary. “We go through lots of eggs and vinegar,” Bybee said, since they are used together for a lab in the General Biology class.
Bybee manages a team of seven workers to assist her in her preparatory duties. “There are two full-time lab techs and five student workers that help me with prep,” she said. “Some of the students are work-study, and others are hourly hires.”
Bybee came to Whatcom a little over five years ago, from the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Marine Lab. After earning a degree in biology, Bybee said she realized she was drawn more to maintaining biology equipment than she was research.
“Students really love the small class size here,” Bybee said of the lab science programs at Whatcom. Classes cap at 24 students where so they can ask questions of their instructor, not a teacher’s assistant. “They’re not being taught by a grad student,” she said. “It’s the same faculty that leads lectures.”
Bybee said that the biggest messes are usually made from the egg osmosis lab in the General Biology class where students immerse eggs in vinegar to dissolve the shell so they can examine the amount of water that can or cannot permeate the egg’s membrane.
The worst smelling lab is from Intro to Organic Chemistry, Bybee said, since it involves aldehydes and ketones. Bybee has noticed chemistry lab students have also appreciated another lab- copper sulfate synthesis using other chemical reagents to create a form of copper.
Bybee and her staff do the work to make all of these labs happen. They do everything from mopping broken eggs to ensuring microscope bulbs work to preparing hundreds of petri dishes so cultures of bacteria may grow there. “One microbiology lab has unknown growth cultures [in a dish], and students must use their course knowledge to determine what type of cell they are,” Bybee said.
Bybee has been active in Bellingham’s community for even longer than she has been at Whatcom. After coming to Bellingham, she took a year to be a swim team instructor for the Bellingham Bay Swim Team. She also trains triathletes on Monday nights at the YMCA.
Not only is Bybee an essential part of lab sciences at Whatcom, she is also involved with pushing for more sustainable practices on Whatcom’s campus. She has advocated for responsible waste disposal and energy reduction, and she said she has seen some substantial changes made in these areas around campus.
Bybee was involved with moving garbage cans out of classrooms and into hallways, where more recycling and compost bins could be made available so fewer recyclable and compostable items would be put into landfill garbage, she said.
Because of changes like these, Whatcom’s waste disposal tonnage has nearly been cut in half since the 2007-08 school year, Bybee said. Whatcom disposed of 97 tons of garbage that year, as compared to the 59 tons it disposed of in the 2011-12 school year.
Among other sustainability projects, Bybee is the Employee Transportation Head at Whatcom and looks for more sustainable ways for teachers to commute than taking their own car every day.
While Bybee and her staff perform many different tasks to make science labs possible, she said that they remain behind the scenes. “If we are doing our job well, they [science students] won’t even know we exist.”