Volunteer, Lilijana Nicholls gets a step closer to her dreams of becoming a forensic examiner. She recounts her amazing  week with PBM partner, Alcoa, for work her experience.

I was lucky enough to be chosen by my school to attend work experience at Alcoa Pinjarra Refinery Laboratory for 5 days.
Each day I worked with a different mentor in varying roles learning a cross-section of skills and processes. In particular I learned how to test certain elements in the refinery process. Working in five different areas; liquors, muds and chemistry, gave me opportunity to shadow a Project Officer. I spend time in the Day Lab, a laboratory with machines that require monitoring, so it only works 12 hours rather than 24.Every role enabled me to learn something different about the responsibilities and skills required in each working environment.

When I started work experience, I thought I would be watching other people work and to see a little of what goes on in a laboratory. I was amazed by what I could take on. It was an eye-opening and enjoyable experience, working with so many knowledgeable people able to teach me about so many aspects of the processes in the Alcoa Lab.

In liquors, I used a micropipette to extract samples to load onto the alians. This was the first time I had used a micropipette or the alians machine. I found the machine easy to use, and got the hang of it quickly. It became routine to put new samples in. The alians analyses samples and extrapolates data based on what is found.

Muds focused on the solids or precipitates within the samples, this involved filtering them through a vacuum, to remove the liquids and then weighing them. There were two types of solids produced; bauxite and alumina. The bauxite samples were sorted into size before being weighed by a stack of different sized sieves. These sieves were put into shakers (machines which shake from side to side) to allow the samples to be sifted. This allows the refinery to know how much alumina they produce on the plant each day, to predict profits.

Working in the chemistry lab was my favourite job. Using a microscope to count needles in the hydroxide samples revealed how clean the samples were. Needles are bits of solids in the hydroxide that under a microscope look like a sewing needle. Fewer needles meant cleaner samples. Each unit had three samples; one unaltered sample, one with 1mL of acid added and one with 2mL of acid. I added the acid, then the samples were put back into a water bath for an hour. After this, they were recounted for needles to see if the acid made any changes. A positive was if there had been a decrease in needles, a negative; an increase. These tests helped to determine how much acid needed to be added to the hydroxide in the tanks.

The day that I shadowed the Project Officer was cool! The role involves finding ways to make the technician's jobs easier through troubleshooting and making safe work instructions for new processes happening within the laboratory.

The project officer needs to have experience with laboratory equipment. Some of the equipment we used were and ICP (Inductively Coupled Plasma) machine. It sprays a sample onto an open flame. The computer analyses the colour generating data based on what is in it. I also used the XRF (X-ray fluorescence) machine as to create a new control sample. This meant weighing the sample with flux (a material used in welding which melts easily and combines with the sample). Samples and flux were put into crucibles to melt, then into silver trays for cooling, then were placed into the XRF machine to be analysed. The bauxite samples turned amber and the alumina samples were white or grey.

The final aspect of my work experience was in the day shift lab making bombs (no I didn’t get to make anything explode!) This involved weighing samples for the XRF machine and the microwave both of which analysed the data.

I thoroughly enjoyed my work experience and learning about working in a lab environment at Alcoa. I felt completely at home. It’s strengthened my goal of becoming a forensic examiner.

I would encourage everyone to do work experience in the field they intend to work in, even if it isn’t the specific job that you want to have. It can give you a much deeper understanding of the tasks you will perform, and the skills that you need to develop in order to get the job of your dreams.