Behind the Bench: Tobacco Testing Then and Now With Specialist Mark Hathaway

Behind the Bench: Tobacco Testing Then and Now With Specialist Mark Hathaway

Welcome to our series – Behind the Bench – where we profile people in the laboratory testing industry that you probably don’t know — but should. Get ready to meet Chemists, Molecular Biologists, Lab Technicians and generally fascinating people from across the industry as we go behind the bench to get to know the laboratory from the inside out.

Pesticide Analysis in Tobacco Country

Mark Hathaway is a true specialist. He has spent his entire career (nearly 33 years) studying pesticide analysis in Wilson, North Carolina, a town that’s known around the world for tobacco production. Because of this extensive experience, Mark is what you would call an authority on the subject. And we sat down with him to discuss the past, present and future of this unique niche of the testing industry.

All, meet Mark.

Mark Hathaway laboratory testing for pesticide analysis in tobacco country.
Mark Hathaway analyzing data in his Wilson, NC office.

Microbac: How did you develop your career in tobacco testing?

Mark Hathaway: Well – I’ve been working here (at this laboratory) essentially my entire career, almost 33 years. I graduated from a small college here in Wilson, North Carolina. That was back in 1980. I found my way into pesticide analysis and went to work for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture for two years. Shortly after, I received a call from Dr. Boyer (the owner of this laboratory before it was purchased by Microbac) and he wanted to bring me back to Wilson for pesticide analysis. I’ve been doing pesticide analysis ever since.

Microbac: What made you want to come back to Wilson and get involved?

MH: I grew up here and my parents were older at the time, so it was just an opportunity that I thought was good all around. Between starting this department and taking care of them, the move made sense.

Pesticide Analysis & Tobacco Testing

Microbac: And how did tobacco become such a prominent part of what you do, versus pesticide analysis for other products?

MH: Wilson was once a world capital for tobacco production. In fact, one third of US tobacco is still sold here – so it’s still a huge industry. But my specialty is not just tobacco – it’s much broader. I don’t really want the stigma of being the tobacco guy, frankly, because I’m not just tobacco. My niche is pesticide analysis – beyond tobacco.

For exampe, I do a lot of bioaccumulation testing. When contaminants leach out of the fields and into the rivers and oceans, those pesticides accumulate in the fat of large fish. That’s not something you want to be eating. We test those accumulations.

READ: Behind the Bench: A Conversation With One of the Industries Leading Problem Solvers

Microbac Laboratory's Mark Hathaway Analyzing

Microbac: How has the pesticide testing industry changed over the years?How has tobacco changed from your perspective?

MH: Tobacco is slowly dying. It’s been dying for three decades now, so it’s a slow death. It will be around far past me, but it is on the decline. Beyond tobacco, the industry hasn’t changed all that much, at least not from my end. We test the raw materials so we haven’t experienced the impact of a lot of these cultural and political factors that are impacting the industry.

Microbac: Would you say you’re somewhat removed from the political conversations when it comes to tobacco? Has your business been affected by the social concerns surrounding cigarettes?

MH: Yes, we are removed. Because we test the raw material primarily, before the chemicals are added. In regard to tobacco, it’s grown in the field and then it’s harvested and cured by one of multiple techniques. It can be dried in a barn, dried in the field, fire cured – all types of methods. We test the raw tobacco after it’s been dried and before it’s put into a manufacturing facility to be made into cigarettes or whatever it will become.

An International Leader In Tobacco Testing

Microbac: You mentioned that Wilson was once a world leader in tobacco production. Has your location affected your laboratories international recognition as a tobacco testing lab?

MH: Definitely. Microbac is one of four leading laboratories in the world for tobacco testing. Because of our involvement in this industry, we’re members of CORESTA – an internationally recognized center for scientific tobacco research. It’s made up of members from all over the world and it is our primary way of staying abreast of what’s going on in the industry… keeping up with new pesticide analytes that need to be added to the scope before testing, etc. It’s really an honor to be a part of this group.

I’ll never forget when I walked into a CORESTA meeting years ago. I walked into a room full of people from all over the world and the leader of the group came into the room and distinctly walked up to me to tell me that everybody in the industry compares their results to my laboratories findings.

Microbac: What makes us one of the world leaders for tobacco testing? How did we reach that point and maintain our standing?

MH: Our leadership comes from the years and years that we’ve put into refining our procedures and the trust that we’ve built up over the course of all those years. Because of that experience, the results that we give our clients are rock solid. We’ve proven our accuracy that way. We provide a high quality result and that’s what’s kept us in the business.

Microbac Labs Laboratory Testing for tobacco pesticides.
One step of the tobacco testing process.

Microbac: Have you tried to get into vape testing?

MH: We made a run at trying to do a smoke laboratory back about seven or eight years ago and we spent a lot of money setting up smoke machines and getting methodologies. We had a whole laboratory for smoke testing. It’s interesting but the ROI wasn’t enough to sustain, so we divested ourselves from that.

Microbac: And for my final question, what is it that you love the most about what you do?

MH: The science of it. I love the science, it’s that simple.

Microbac Laboratories Testing Space in Virginia.
One testing space in Microbac’s Wilson Laboratory.

This document is not intended to provide scientific or other advice to be used in a specific fact situation and is intended for general information purposes only.  While we encourage you to share this document with others, this document or any portion of it may not be quoted, used in or referred to in another publication without our express permission.

All photography by Cara Chancellor

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