Monday, October 7, 2019

V-LABS Earns Industry Recognitions

Tucked away at the edge of downtown Covington is the office of V-LABS, a 40 year old company that provides consulting, manufacturing, and analytical chemistry services to chemical researchers, primarily in the field of sugar carbohydrates.

The walls in the company's front office are filled with framed certificates testifying to years of expertise and recognition from a wide-variety of industry groups. It is a small lab at heart, but the services it provides to carbohydrate researchers is vital, particularly in the area of food ingredients.

The setting has provided a great place for the Vercellotti family to explore the wonders of science and even share those wonders with interns from area high schools to acquaint them with the future job opportunities in chemical engineering. 

"We started the company in 1979 and mainly serve people who do specialized research in carbohydrates," Sharon Vercellotti, company president, explains. Because they deal in research, they always work in small quantities, she said. 

Sharon Vercellotti in the Lab

For years, although the chemical lab has been located in Covington, they didn't have any customers in Louisiana. Samples were sent and received by mail from all over the nation, as well as a few international locations. They have since served three or four Louisiana based clients, but the bulk of their business is still out-of-state with a few from Canada. 

Attending National Conferences

The field in which they work is high-level research that is very focused. They regularly attend national meetings of the national and regional American Chemical Society where they have taken part in the Society’s governance and met with many clients, either at the technical sessions or in the vendor area. "We would find out what their problems were and determine if we could solve them," Sharon commented.

A Love of Chemistry

As a young person, Sharon liked chemistry, and when she went to LSU she majored in the subject. "I was excited by all the big discoveries that were being made in chemistry at the time, and the field was very diverse and filled with opportunity," she explained.  But the biggest draw was the ability it afforded to solve problems.

"You could solve many, many things with chemistry, solve problems for people in ways that couldn't be done otherwise," she noted. 

She graduated from LSU  as a "Distinguished Student in Chemical Engineering," and went to Ohio State University for her graduate work. There she met Dr. John Vercellotti, Ph.D., who now serves as Vice President and Senior Chemist for V-LABS. 

Dr. John and Sharon Vercellotti

Since then, they have been involved with the American Chemical Society's Division of Small Chemical Businesses for many years, and their work with that organization called upon them to travel from time to time. "I really enjoyed the travel," Sharon stated.

The Fairbanks Adventure

One of the most memorable meetings they attended, and worked on putting together as well, was in Fairbanks, Alaska. "I had never been to Alaska, and I was able to get members of the small chemical business community to come together there, and it was a great turnout," she recalls. 

A full program of meetings and presentations was put together for the Fairbanks gathering, and because it was such an interesting place, a lot of people wanted to attend.  All the national officers of the American Chemical Society wanted to take part, and while most people came in by plane and then by bus or train, there was one member who rode his motorcycle up from Washington state, across Canada into Alaska and then into Fairbanks. "We were just getting off the bus, and there he was riding up on his motorcycle. It was quite an adventure," she said.

The events included a baseball game at midnight with the sun still up during the summer solstice, and a trip up from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle. Having visited Alaska, she now keeps up with Alaskan news, and she is quite concerned about the melting ice and thawing of the permafrost. "It's really going on," she warns. 

When computers came along in the mid-1980's, the V-LABS work was readily adapted to the new tool. Computers helped them in a number of ways, not only in their lab work, but also in staying in communication with their clients far and wide. "We started using computers early," Sharon said. "And we were encouraged by our clients to continue the efforts. Computers were like magic when they first came into the workplace."

V-LABS Interns

 V-LABS has, from time to time, brought in high school students as "interns," teaching them the basics and giving them a headstart to what could be a lucrative career. "We would get students from local high schools to show them what opportunities are out there in this field, and I feel that's been a really valuable experience for many of them," Sharon stated.

Students with no idea of what the company did would gradually get a feel for the work and learn the techniques associated with it. "It was interesting," she said. "And many of them went on to college and continued their studies in chemistry. That pleased me endlessly."

She used to be a judge at local school science fairs, and it was good to see students realize how many problems that could be solved in the field of chemical research.  "I enjoyed working with the science fairs a whole lot," she said. "And it was encouraging to see some of the work they were doing in those projects."

Coming Home To Covington

Sharon and John feel fortunate to be able to live in Covington and operate a nationwide business. "I was very happy to come home to Covington," Sharon stated. She was born in Covington, but her husband John was born in Illinois.  She was in graduate school at Ohio State University when they met. In 1963 he had just gotten his Ph.D. and was going to stay another year in order to publish some of his research work.

The university has a huge chemistry department, and they gave him a job teaching freshmen chemistry. The first class had 430 students in it.  As a result, John was assigned five graduate students to assist him, and Sharon happened to be one of those. They got married and for the first several years, they were working at various schools far from Louisiana, he as a teacher and she as a worker in research centers.

They lived for a year in Italy while John was teaching at the Milan University as a "visiting scientist," and Sharon and their children enjoyed the experience living abroad. They were not only able to travel around Italy and see those sights, but John signed up with the U.S. State Department as an expert in the field of carbohydrates. As a result he got invitations to go to various other cities throughout Europe to help chemists solve their problems.  

Sharon fell in love with Italy and the Italians. "Every place in Italy is unique, and It's a place of many adventures," she stated.

After a while, they started talking about opening their own business and moving to Covington. "We would come back here to visit family for a holiday, and it was always fun to come back home," Sharon said. " I was so happy we found a way to work nationally and internationally and yet still be here in Covington. Clients would mail us their work no matter where we were located, so why not live here?"

Dr. Vercellotti's Recognition

One of many honors given to John was from the American Chemical Society's Division of Carbohydrate Chemistry
in 1994

One of John's teachers at Ohio State was a world famous carbohydrate scientist, Melville L. Wolfrom, and the 1994 Wolfrom Award recognized John for his "distinguished service to the Division and to the Field of Carbohydrate Chemistry."

John at work in the early days of his career

Last year Dr. John Vercellotti received an American Chemical Society certificate of recognition "in grateful appreciation" of his sixty years of service to the field.

A Tour of the Lab

The V-LABS building contains an "instrument room" where various samples are tested using a variety of industry standard measuring devices. In the other room, the laboratory, large  centrifuges help separate solids out of liquids, and vacuum ovens dry the moisture out of the chemical compounds. 

Sharon with the measuring instruments in the lab. Using a variety of laboratory apparatuses, they are able to isolate and purify and measure the pH of the samples they are working with. 

Children Share Their Parents' Quest  in Art and Sound

Their daughter and son grew up immersed in the workings of the lab and absorbed the "milieu and thought climate of the scientific disciplines," John said.

Their daughter, Ellen Theresa Vercellotti, spent her childhood either at the lab or out the back door at her grandparents’ home.  Ellen has spent many hours on the lab benches of V-LABS perfecting her art skills She went on to gain a bachelor’s degree from Southeastern, a master’s degree in theatre arts from Emerson University in Boston, MA, , and after a further art curriculum at Southeastern, full Louisiana certification in Art Education K-12. 

During her time teaching in Orleans Parish she added ancillary certification for Talented Art and Talented Theatre.. She has taught in the Talented Art curriculum of the Jefferson Parish Public Schools as well as, at present, in the Bogalusa City Schools. She uses the convenience of the lab location and computers for planning lessons. 

Their daughter Ellen is shown at left working on her art lessons and their son Paul is shown with the Television Academy Engineering Emmy Award he and his co-workers won last year, the coveted Philo T. Farnsworth Award for Pioneering Technology and Contributions to the Television Industry.

Son Excels In Software Engineering

The effect of the lab environment on the technical interests of their son, Paul Auguste Vercellotti, encouraged him to become a widely-recognized expert in the field of digital audio recording.

In the 1980's, their young son Paul was particularly enthralled with the early computers, writing programs in Basic when he was ten years old, and creating software that generated intricate fractal designs. On the wall of the V-LABS office is a set for four colored fractal pictures that he generated using early computer calculations. He used a Texas Instruments computer, one of the earliest, to experiment and develop his programming skills. 

"He was really captured by that, and today he works for a digital recording company in California," Sharon explained. "He does recording work all around the world. I never know where he is."  

John explained that his son serves as a software architect for Avid Technologies, particularly their Pro Tools digital imaging and digital audio and transmission services. He also works on Universal Studios Hollywood programs providing sound recording and engineering. In 2018 he was part of the group that won a Television Academy Engineering Emmy known as the Philo T. Farnsworth Award for Pioneering Technology and Contributions to the Television Industry over the past 30 years.

Having inherited the inventiveness and diligence of his grandfather, Henri Vergez, as well as the drive and focus of his parents, Paul Vercellotti has gone to the top levels of his field with his work for Pro Tools audio computer services worldwide.

Sharon Vercellotti's Recognition

A graduate of Covington High and Valedictorian of her Class of 1959, Sharon also recalls taking part in the opening ceremony of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in 1956 as one of the young women in attendance as well as being in the Tung Nut Festival Queen entourage. 

These days she enjoys going to the Covington Farmer's Market and Art Market, as well as the Friday Night Block Parties on Columbia Street.  At those events, she gets to visit with people that she doesn't get to see regularly. It's a gathering place for all of Covington, with the music and antique car show.  "It's a treat," she says. 

This home-grown native who enjoys living and working in downtown Covington was recently named by the Marquis Who's Who publication as one of the being One of the Outstanding Women of the Twentieth Century. 

Working in the laboratory

In 2011, the American Chemical Society recognized Sharon for "Excellence in the Chemical Sciences," designating her as a Fellow of The American Chemical Society, and in 2014 the East Texas Section of the American Chemical Society brought her in to give a presentation on "Chemical Professionals As Entrepreneurs."  

Key Presentation Next Week

This coming week, a major presentation will be given in Las Vegas highlighting some of the work done at V-LABS by Sharon Vercellotti beginning back in the 1980's. It will tell of an achievement that originated in V-LABS and was carried forward by a company in New York. "It is being announced at an international biochemical nutrition conference for ingredients in food, particularly nutraceuticals," John explained.

John is excited about the presentation and the recognition that his wife and their company may receive as a result of it. "The medical doctor giving the presentation will be telling about a new food ingredient that improves the immune system and its biomedical effects," John went on to say.

"We did all the preparation of it here at V-LABS, and it all started over 30 years ago with Sharon developing a purified component from a yeast cell-wall.  Her having taken a number of chemical engineering courses at LSU helped her do a remarkable job on it. After 15 years of producing it and working with it here at V-LABS, it was then turned over to chemical engineers at the company, Immudyne, Inc., in Florence, KY, to start making larger amounts. This year Immudyne moved the plant to a bigger high tech site in Pensacola, FL to make these same products", John said. 

So the small chemical consulting firm in downtown Covington continues to earn even greater recognition for the dedication and successful work accomplished by Dr. John Vercellotti and his wife Sharon Vergez Vercellotti over the past four decades.