One of the more common items in a scientific lab is a magnetic stir bar, a simple magnet coated in lab-grade Teflon and used to continually mix whatever liquid might be in a flask or beaker. They come in a variety of sizes and are reusable. The University of Houston Natural Science & Math (UHNSM) Store bought stir bars from Obtainium a short time ago, which prompted us to learn more about a store specifically created for science students. The College of Natural Science & Math is a large school within the University of Houston. It has about six thousand students, more than half of which are women. The College of NSM is an educational and research institution with $26 million in annual research expenditures. The store supports the College. We spoke with Ryan Nguyen, the store manager.
Talk to us about the research store. It seems like an unusual arrangement to have such a narrowly focused business on campus.
Nguyen: We exist because there is a real need for scientific equipment with a tier-one research school like ours. We serve all the scientific departments.
We supply various equipment to the College of NSM, including the faculty and undergrads. It’s a convenience issue. Students have easy and quick access to the things they need, so they don’t have to leave the campus. They know they can find what they need in our store.
Because of our volume, we warehouse a large inventory. Our products are reserved for faculty and undergrads. We sell thousands of items because we have a really large college. The School of Natural Science and Math enrollment makes up about 15-percent of the university’s total enrollment (46,000).
Is it fair to call this store unique to American colleges?
Nguyen: I’m not sure about unique but certainly unusual. The store was created by demand. There are about 6,000 students in the College (of natural science and math).
How did you get involved in this?
Nguyen: I’ve been here for about seven months. I came from working at a private environmental science lab. I graduated from the College of NSM with a degree in biology. Somebody suggested that I would be a good fit for the manager position because I was an alum and had a scientific background. I didn’t have much business experience, but they were looking for someone who had science knowledge. They asked if I would be interested. I said yes.
It seems like your job can get a little complicated. Tell us about that.
Nguyen: There are lots of rules to deal with. That made for a high learning curve. It is a challenge, but I like that.
How do you do “good” customer service in a store like this that has a very young, narrow kind of focus?
Nguyen: It’s different from most retail stores. We have a built-in customer base, so they approach us with a specific idea of what they need. Our store is about convenience.
What kinds of materials do you sell?
Nguyen: Anything and everything you would use in a lab. There is a lot of lab work as an undergrad. Goggles, gloves, flasks, vials, and a lot of safety equipment because you're dealing with potentially dangerous chemicals. Fire is always a concern, so a lot of products are aimed at preventing and extinguishing fires. There is a variety of scientific equipment that covers the classroom demands of students. We carry it. We have other stores that do things like printing, photography, and multi-media development, but I’m not directly involved in that.
An interesting side note to Ryan Nguyen. His family immigrated to the United States from Vietnam when he was a child. He didn’t speak a word of English but learned and pushed himself to a science degree at a prestigious college. Now he has a budding business career. By the way, his English is pretty darn good. “I’m still working on it,” he laughs.