Category Archives: Michael Pickering

Pickering Laboratories Celebrates Our 40th Anniversary!

By: Rebecca Smith

Pickering's 40-year anniversary logo

It is with great pride that we announce the celebration of our 40-year anniversary in 2022! 

As part of our efforts to honor this milestone achievement, we created an interactive timeline of our history.  It can be found at the following link:

Our late friend and founder, Dr. Michael Pickering, began this journey in 1982.  As the namesake of our company, Michael’s many achievements are reflected throughout our timeline but also in our company’s logo and especially in our “Guaranteed Chemistry” watermark, which we’ve updated for this special anniversary.  We continue to uphold his legacy of high quality and dedicated support for our customers. 

As you visit the timeline, you’ll be able to relive the important milestones that we’ve reached during the last four decades, including: a United States patent for our Ninhydrin reagent Trione, introduction of our PCX post-column instrumentation, publishment in official methods and many more highlights.  If you look closely at our shiny new 40th anniversary logo, you may even see a familiar chromatogram or two!

We would like to extend a special “Thank You!” to all of the customers and dealers who have joined us throughout these historic four decades.  We would not be a successful company still today without the trust, partnership and loyalty which you have shown us.  As a small business, we want each of our customers to know that their orders over the years have supported and directly impacted our scientific contributions to the analytical community.  We look forward to our partnership together for many years to come, as well.

And finally, we wish to acknowledge that we could not have made this company a success without our most valuable assets: our employees!  As you may have noticed in the last couple newsletters, our very dedicated colleagues have been celebrating a lot of 20th and 30th work anniversaries lately!  This fantastic team works so hard every day to support our customers; we are so proud and grateful to have them. 

Please, we would be honored if you’d pop the champagne, raise a glass, and celebrate with us! 

Cheers to our Pickering Labs family!  Cheers to our customers and distributors!  Cheers as well to sustaining Michael’s legacy for another 40 years! 

And a clink of our glasses for the scientific work we all do in the world.

A Legacy of Guaranteed Chemistry

By Rebecca Smith, Director of Operations

As most of you have already learned from Jim Murphy in his earlier notifications, our founder and friend Dr. Michael Pickering has passed away.  He is survived by his wife, Judy Pickering, who will now assume ownership of the company.  Michael also leaves behind four children and six grandchildren. 

At the lab, Michael leaves a legacy of another kind.  Pickering Laboratories is a unique place to work, bonded by a strong family feeling and staffed by dedicated employees.  Michael was always the chemist behind the company and from early on he created an unprecedented industry standard: he set out to provide Guaranteed Chemistry. 

Michael started the lab with a background in Amino Acid Analysis and a fantastic improvement on the traditional Ninhydrin reagent.  Our flagship product TRIONE® kicked off the company, but Michael soon expanded into post-column instrumentation kits and other applications.  As his reputation developed as the post-column expert, he began receiving calls from other labs trying to fix different post-column methods.  And Michael loved being challenged by technical problems, so from there our environmental applications were born.  Michael set out to understand the impossibilities with the early EPA methods for Carbamates and Glyphosate, and improve the functionality (and solubility!) of those methods for chemists around the country.  Eventually Michael and his early customers succeeded in updating EPA methods 531 and 547, and a new generation of chemists was grateful (myself included).

When I was originally hired by Pickering Labs, it was as Michael’s research assistant.  And as I try to think of personal anecdotes to share, what I am mostly struck by is that every single person who conversed with Michael has a personal anecdote.  He was a charming and enthusiastic conversationalist.  Michael was both a brilliant chemist and a lover of art, books, food and film.  In any given workday, I would be as likely researching a new sulfonation of a potential reagent as I would be looking up an old Marlon Bando movie (and adding it to my Netflix queue).  We talked about Salvador Dali exhibits he’d seen and about longstanding friendships he cultivated with chemists around the world.  Michael genuinely bonded with everyone he encountered – and I can hazard a guess that if you’d ever had Michael in your lab troubleshooting, I’ve heard about you, your family, your favorite book, what your analytical problem was and how he fixed it.  Michael told great stories, and I hope you had the opportunity to hear one or two from him over the years.

As 2017 marks our 35th year in business, we are striking out on perhaps our most difficult chapter as Michael’s absence will be poignantly felt.  But we hope to heal through our work and honor his legacy by building relationships and solving technical problems for decades to come.  

Please do us the great favor of raising a glass and toasting to a wonderful man.  We celebrate Michael and the years of joy and memories he gave us.

The Pickering Labs Team


Random Tangent – African Safari Edition!

By Michael Pickering

My wife and I had the great pleasure of traveling to Kenya this year for a couple of weeks.  As Judy and her friend (our traveling companion) are both avid photographers, we’ve got some spectacular pictures to share.  Everyone at Pickering Labs has enjoyed the stories and photos, and I am hoping that you’ll find them entertaining as well.

Judy and I visited five conservancies in total while we were in Kenya, traveling around for the better part of three weeks.  As such, we have thousands of animal photos to share, which I am told is a bit too many for the Pickering Labs webpage.  So, Judy has helped me select several choices for public consumption and we have included links to the places we have traveled for more information than I will detail here.

In Nairobi, we first visited the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.  This conservancy focuses on the protection and preservation of elephants and rhinos.  We were able to visit with orphaned elephants, and even saw that the baby elephants learn to bottle-feed themselves during their fostering!  In the second picture below, you can see me posing with Mbegu, the orphaned elephant we “adopted” during our visit.  She came to the conservancy at a very young age and injured, but we are happy to report she has made a full recovery and is thriving in her new community of orphaned elephants and their faithful and hardworking keepers.

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From Nairobi we continued north to Sambaru, where we were able to see a lot of African wildlife!  We watched elephants drinking from wells that the local people maintain for both themselves and the wildlife.  We also saw Grevy zebra (an endangered species) and cheetas when we visited the Lewa Wilderness Camp.  In addition to staying in the lodge, we also visited some of the 62,000 acres of conserved lands there.

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Lewa lands are home to over 70 different animal species and 350 different bird species.  Lewa is particularly famous as a leading rhino sanctuary, so I wanted to share a photo of the Black Rhino with you.  We also learned that of the 3,000 Grevy zebra remaining worldwide, a full 20% make their home on this conservancy.  The birds we spotted onsite were spectacular!  Here is a picture of the lilac-breasted roller and a pair of crowned cranes for your enjoyment.

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Inspired by the multitudes of birds surrounding us, I was also eager to take flight!  Lewa has an amazing biplane, and although Judy remained earthbound, I was able to take a ride in the skies and view the wildlife from a whole new vantage point!  The biplane experience came complete with the classy attire necessary to remain comfortable during the ride, much to my wife’s delight.

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We travelled to a Maasai village and the local warriors performed traditional dancing to welcome me to their village.  You can see in the photo below how incredibly high they jump!  Judy has video of this dancing, and my attempts to join in on the fun, but there are some visuals best left to the imagination.  Let’s just say that when Judy tells this story at the lab, everyone is cracking up by the time she’s done.

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From there, we crossed the equator and visited Ol Pejeta Conversancy and saw lions and warthogs pictured above.  Ol Pejeta is the largest Black Rhino conservancy in East Africa, with 108 Black Rhinos on site.  We also visited their Endangered Species Enclosure and below you will see a picture of me meeting the last male Northern White Rhino on the planet. 

Cmp17soloonsidered extinct in the wild, the last three Northern White Rhinos are protected at Ol Pejeta, where they are kept under 24-hour armed guard and enjoy a 700-arce enclosure.  Unfortunately, breeding efforts have proven unsuccessful – it has been determined that the females, Fatu and Najin, are unable to naturally reproduce.  Sudan, the 43-year old male in the picture, is an older fellow and his sperm count is pretty low…  But there is hope that artificially-assisted reproduction is a possibility and the Northern White Rhino subspecies can be saved from complete extinction.  This is an international effort, and you can learn more about the efforts taking place right here in California on the San Diego Zoo’s webpage

From Ol Pejeta, we flew to the Masai Mara Reserve, which is where the prey animals cross the Mara River.  Although the Wildebeest migration occurs between July-October, we missed the massive herds moving through.  Instead, we saw a whole lot of hippos!  You can see them below, and notice the baby sunbathing with mom!  We also took photos of more cheetahs and lions.  I won’t share those particular pictures, but these lions were definitely an actively mating pair!

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After Ol Pejeta, we traveled to our final stop at the Amboseli National Park.  We found the highlight of our time there to be the herds of Maasai giraffe.  Particularly fun was watching them drinking from a pond, as you can see in these pictures.

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mp23On our very last day in Kenya, we were treated to a rare treat.  I was sitting outside the lodge, soaking in the sights and sun, when I spotted movement at the edge of the lawn.  There was some distance of grass forming a manmade lawn, and from there a clear edge to more natural foliage, fallen leaf debris and assorted bush.  Running parallel to the lawn, I watched as something moved just exactly along the edge.  Of course I needed to evaluate from a closer distance, so I called to Judy to bring the camera and set out across the grass.  A snake!  How excellent!  By the time Judy arrived with the camera it had moved off some ways into the brush, but we were able to take enough pictures that, combined with my detailed descriptions, the lodge safari guide was able to find the snake in his book: a black-necked spitting cobra!  Truly a delightful find. 


Safety Fun, First

Rebecca Smith

Pickering Labs decided to place an increased awareness on Safety for 2015!  Don’t get me wrong – laboratory safety is always critical.  We have proper equipment for lifting heavy packages, we provide lab coats and goggles, our employees always use gloves, and we host ergonomics training.  But none of these are especially glamourous, and I have to be careful not to schedule my spill cleanup presentations for right after lunch… 

So this year, we really spiced up some of our safety meetings!  Starting in January, we got the entire company out in the parking lot and had live fire training for proper extinguisher use.  The group had a great time, and the Cintas trainers made fire safety really fun!  Each person got to take a turn, and even Michael Pickering was out there wielding his ABC extinguisher with style.


If you’ve never had “live fire” training for your fire extinguisher class, let me be the first to recommend it.  The whole group was buzzing with energy and excitement.  It makes you really aware of how hard it is to twist and pull the pin, and how little time you have during an actual fire to get it extinguished.  The trainers really did an excellent job of keeping the pressure on to put those fires out!


Next, our staff got together this summer and we took a basic First Aid course, supported by the installation of two new fabulous first aid kits!  We paired up and treated “burns” and wrapped gauze around the “head wounds” of our partners.  Again, much fun was had and we learned great first aid skills in the process.  We only had one volunteer for the Heimlich maneuver, and sadly they didn’t wish for everyone to have a turn practicing!  


But seriously, one of the great things that actually came out of our first aid class was an overwhelming interest in having an onsite AED installed.  The trainer from Cintas discussed some pretty powerful stuff – your chances of surviving cardiac arrest are significantly better with the use of a bystander automated external defibrillator.  An American Heart Association paper from 2011 on resuscitation science that I just read ( shows about a 3.5X times better survival rate (49.6% versus 14.3%), and that data is from a 2006-2009 study!  (For more accurate information than I can give you from my random afternoon internet search, feel free to contact Cintas or another provider of safety training.)

The best part about the AED we selected is that there are step-by-step pictures AND verbal instructions for what to do.  And of course it will not issue a shock unless the AED itself determines that there is a need.  So, that takes the guesswork out of whether or not to use the AED during a health emergency (and nobody can chase a coworker around the lab, either).


So, now that we’re sold – what’s next?!  We ordered the AED, sure, but there’s more to it than that.  We have to register the AED with Stat PADS, the Medical Direction / Physician Oversight service that Cintas works with to provide AEDs.  They work with the local Mountain View emergency medical services to post the location of our AED into their network, another requirement for having one onsite.

And last but not least, the whole company is getting CPR certified and trained on the AED!  Our November safety meeting will be dedicated to this training, and our employees hopefully get a great day out of it.  We will have five hours of training and catered lunch for our midday break! 

So by now you’re probably thinking to yourself “that’s great, Rebecca, but what does all this mean for me?!”  Well, it means that if you’re placing an order with Pickering Labs on November 17, you might consider emailing rather than calling.  Everyone here will be busy practicing CPR on each other and we won’t be available to take your call!  Phone calls will be returned before 9:00am PST and after 2:00pm on that day. 

If you have urgent business, let me know and I will give you Michael Pickering’s cell phone number! 

(An inside joke, as Michael doesn’t have a cell phone.)

Best regards!

Secondary Metabolites

By Michael Pickering

Peyote Plants (1)

This name encompasses the category of chemicals that living organisms make which are not used in their normal growth, development, or reproduction.  They are a staggering array of chemical structures and properties.  Antibiotics are largely produced by bacteria, and a large variety of mammalian toxins are of fungal origin.  Pigments are produced by both botanicals and insects.  The peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii, produces the hallucinogenic alkaloid mescaline.  Fugu, the Chinese puffer fish, harbor symbiotically produced tetrodotoxin.  


Puffer Fish at Japanese Market (2)
The producers of these exotic structures usually must isolate them to keep them out of the traffic of their living processes.  They can interfere with everyday life, or more often are toxic for the producer.  Dalea emoryi (aka dyebush) makes an intense red pigment that it stores in blister-like vesicles on its bark.  Coyotillo shrubs, Karwinskia humboldtiana, make deadly neurotoxins which they store in the seeds, discouraging browsing animals such as cattle, deer, and sheep from eating them. (You can read more about this plant in a previous newsletter:  Coyotillo in Del Rio, Texas)

Lotus scoparius, or deer weed, makes a water-soluble flavinoid, which is a biodegradable germination inhibitor, and stores in its seeds.  Upon first rain, this compound sterilizes the surrounding ground so that no seeds can germinate.  The result is that competitive weed seeds rot.  When the second rain comes, the deer weed seeds germinate with nothing but clear sky surrounding them. 

Sometimes, we can see a competitive advantage of the presence of these chemicals: attracting pollinators, protective insects, or mates, or discouraging predators, competitors, or tramplers.  But often not.  Today’s musings are about two species (an insect and a botanical): Daclylopius coccus and Citrus sinensis. 
"Gusano Rojo", Dactylopius coccus

Red dyes produced by insects have been and remain among the most important dyestuffs in human commerce.  Before the Americas were exploited, the most abundant source of red pigments was the Asian scale insects and their excretions.  This broad class of quinoid dyes bind permanently to proteinaceous substrates (in dye talk they are ‘fast’) such as wool and silk.  Historically, they have also been used as art pigments.

Early in the 16th century, the Spanish introduced the world to the American cochineal, and the Asian scale insects were doomed to a mere historical reference. 

Cacti with Cochineal (3)



Cochineal Cluster (3)

The females of this American species that feeds on cactus provide the popular Latino name “red worm.”  Interestingly, Dactylopius coccus is not actually a worm, but is part of the cochineal family. By dry weight, the females can produce an astounding double digit percentage of pigment.  The pigments have great variation of color and intensity (Carminic Acid extinction coefficient 6800, Laccaic Acid A extinction coefficient 43700).  The commercial growers of the pigment use the cactus Indian Fig Opuntia (Opuntia ficus-indica) to feed the caterpillars, whose fruit and tender young shoots are also popular in Latino diets.  The same insects in a blue agave farm are considered a pest.

Because of the significance of these insect-derived pigments in human history, they are the subject of anthropological study in ancient art.  In 2004, we were invited into the study by the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research of the Smithsonian Institute.  Although the pigments have long wavelength chromophores (little or no interference) and large extinction coefficients, the sample size is only 2-5 ng to minimize damage.  As the pigments are only a small component of the sample, adequate detection requires a post-column reaction to make the pigments fluorescent.  We made them an inert system as the reagent AlCl3 is a powerful reducing agent, which translates as very corrosive to hardware.  During the reaction, the Al3+ reduces the quinone to a hydroquinone, which chelates the spent Al3+ and makes the entire complex fluorescent. 


Oranges, Citrus sinensis

Valencia oranges produces two main bitter principles, Limonin, a terpenoid, and Naringin, a flavenoid, which it mainly stores in its seeds.  The seeds are easily removed when the fruit is harvested for juice.  Lacking seeds, the navel orange must develop a different storage strategy. 
The navel orange stores the Limonin and Naringin as tasteless precursors (at neutral pH) in the peel, concentrated in the vestigial seed, the navel end.  When the orange is juiced, the membranes are torn and spill their contents into the acidic juice.  The acidity catalyzes the hydrolytic elimination of a sugar from a tertiary alcohol and facilitates a ring-closure to form a lactone, the bitter Limonin.  
The tasteless Naringin precursor reacts similarly.
California, and I am sure other commercial orange-producing areas, has strict standards for exportability of the whole fruit, size being paramount.  Thus, the most important commercial value in un-exportable fruit is the juice.  One hundred percent navel orange juice is unpalatably bitter. 

It is my opinion, and I encourage you to compare, that non-specific blended frozen orange juice concentrates contain a noticeable amount of navel orange juice.  Pure Valencia concentrate is available, so do the experiment and voice your opinion.  We will post opinions (with your bylines, or make up a cool avatar name) in the next newsletter.   

Further Reading and Photo Credits:

1) Peyote photo from Wikipedia:

2) Puffer fish Photo by Mikael:
3) Cochineal Photos from Wikipedia:

Bread Rises

SF-SourdoughRising to the Occasion
Michael Pickering

My wife Judy baked bread recently for our annual St. Patrick’s Day luncheon at Pickering Labs.  She’s an excellent baker, and her Irish Soda Bread is a favorite addition to the corned beef and cabbage “traditional” fare.  Soda bread uses baking soda instead of yeast as the rising agent for the dough.  In addition to baking soda, her recipe also calls for flour, salt, and buttermilk.  This is typical for soda bread, as the buttermilk contains the lactic acid required for the ‘rising’ reaction with the sodium bicarbonate. 

Having grown up in Southern California, I have fond childhood memories of another special kind of bread – Salt-Rising Bread.  This denser bread relies on the fermentation of salt-tolerant bacteria in cornmeal.  The cornmeal must be freshly stone ground, and the dry ingredients also include sugar and salt.  The starter is formed as scalded milk is poured over the dry ingredients, and then left to incubate for about twelve hours at 100 or so degrees.  Despite its name, salt is a relatively minor ingredient in the bread. 

The Van de Kamp’s bakery had a rich history which straddled my own childhood and years living in the greater Los Angeles area.  Although the bakery was originally sold by the Van de Kamp family back in the 1950’s when Theodore Van de Kamp died, the Dutch windmill style bakeries and fresh salt-rising bread remained a warm memory for many of us Southern California children.  When accompanying my mom to buy our bread, I was treated on more than one occasion to a free windmill toy and a cookie. 

By the mid-1970’s, the Van de Kamp bakeries had stopped baking the salt-rising bread I grew up on, but by that point I had left Southern California and moved up to the Bay Area, a region where the Van de Kamp bread had been seldom offered and shortly went out of business.  However, in San Francisco, sourdough bread reigned supreme and had since the California Gold Rush.

Sourdough bread also uses natural microbes as a rising agent, but the longer fermentation of the starter allows the Lactic Acid produced by the Lactobacillus to give the bread a uniquely sour taste.  Naturally occurring yeasts such as Saccharomyces exigua and Saccharomyces cerevisiae also participate in the rising.  Sourdough yeasts work slower than today’s packaged yeasts, increasing the time needed for fermentation to multiple days.  San Francisco sourdoughs are usually kept closer to 70 degrees and often need a week to become stabilized.

Flour and water are combined in the starter, and various methods for introducing micro-organisms and stabilizing the dough are used.  Often times, boiled potatoes are used to help increase the activity of the bacteria.  Creating a sourdough starter is a baker’s science, and each recipe is unique and starter closely monitored.  As a result, bakers are often using “mother dough” that is many years old.  Some bakeries, such as the Boudin Bakery, are able to trace their “mother dough” back to the Gold Rush era. 

During the 1980’s, as modern food processes and general business consolidation trended, San Francisco bakeries fell into the hardship of competition with prepackaged bread.  Smaller bakeries were driven out of business, and the long-term survivors tended to be the larger bakeries with well-established distribution channels.  I moved to Oregon during this time, and my observations upon returning to the Bay Area some years later made it clear that there was a stark change in the availability of good local sourdough bread.  Fortunately for my family, Judy was at the peak of her baking heyday during this time and we were seldom lacking in good bread around my house!

Fast forward to now, and the artisan bread movement has brought back the ability to purchase good, hand-made loaves of bread.  Specialty bakeries have been started and thrive in high numbers.  Even restaurants and grocery stores are taking the time to bake their own bread.  I personally continue to feel that no sourdough of modern San Francisco origin can compete to the distinct sour taste and texture of earlier days, but there is no Pickering starter dough dating back to 1970 lurking in my refrigerator, so I make do with what’s available.  It is my sincere hope that the continued evolution of artisan bread, gastronomy, and the souring culture will ultimately recreate my ideal sourdough again soon. 

Until then, at least we can look forward to St. Patrick’s Day each year, when Judy will rise to the occasion and bake a unique bread to treat us all again!


Pass the Bubbly

By Michael Pickering

I first had the pleasure of knowing Laszlo through our mutual involvement with AOAC (far longer ago than I’m willing to admit).  I admired his technical knowledge, and the excellent ways in which he represented the interests of his home state of Montana, his lab there, and the AOAC organization as a whole.

Laszlo first started working for Pickering Labs twelve years ago, and my professional admiration for him blossomed into a lasting friendship.  My wife and I have many fond memories of visiting Napa and Yellowstone with Laszlo and his wife Sondra, and over the years we have had the pleasure of hosting them several delightful times in our home.

Laszlo has been a valuable member of our team here at Pickering, too.  His insight is bubblyunmatched, and we have benefited so much from his tireless travel on our behalf.  I have always known that Pickering Labs is well represented by Laszlo, and I particularly enjoyed traveling with him to AOAC International 2009 in Philadelphia and watching him work firsthand.

So, I propose a toast to Laszlo Torma!  Congratulations on your retirement!  You will be greatly missed, and thank you for your hard work and warm friendship.


The Pickering team raise a glass to Lazlo on Friday, December 12, 2014:

Champagne for Laszlo(L to R): Jim, Wendy, Fidel, Sareeta, Mike, Michael, Ed, Tony, Anita, Maria, Gloria, Rebecca, Diana, Gabriela, Severo, Jay, Saji, and David (behind the camera)