Technicians with talent!

Most initiatives and articles about female scientists in universities focus on women professors and lecturers, the academic members of staff traditionally responsible for providing a rich learning and research environment. But there is also another, almost “secret” community within higher education who also contribute to the research and teaching activities of our universities – our technicians!

I’m Kelly Vere and I’m a technician at the University of Nottingham, based in both the School of Life Sciences and the Faculty of Engineering. I’m one of over 700 technicians at the university and you’ll find us in a wide range of disciplines, from Archaeology to Zoology!

I love my job, I’m a Registered Scientist, I’m involved in world-leading research and I contribute towards training the scientists of the future. A career as a technician is diverse, rewarding and exciting – there is never a dull moment and every day is different.

Technicians are essential to the success of our institutions – our talented technical staff have the practical skills and expertise to turn academic research ideas into reality and to contextualise the theory of the lecture theatre for our students through practical classes and workshops. We really do make things happen!

Within and beyond higher education, the practical skills of technicians are vital in supporting the UK economy, so much so that forecasts predict that an additional 700,000 technicians will be required by 2020 across all sectors. Unfortunately, despite this growth, there is still a shortage of female technicians across the STEM disciplines and it is essential that this is addressed. Therefore, technicians here at the University of Nottingham were pleased to support the recent Department of Work and Pensions #NotJustForBoys campaign which highlighted the shortfall of female technicians across STEM. On the launch day of the campaign a number of my fantastic female technical colleagues came together to back this vital cause and to demonstrate that a career as a technician in STEM is certainly just as appealing to ScienceGrrls!

Science technicians #NotJustForBoys (Image credit Lisa Gilligan-Lee, University of Nottingham)

Science technicians #NotJustForBoys (Image credit Lisa Gilligan-Lee, University of Nottingham)

Let me introduce them…

Katarzyna Lis-Slimak – Stem Cell Culture and Automation Technician, School of Medicine

I studied Biomedical Sciences at Nottingham Trent University. In my role I support scientists who work on understanding and modelling disease using human pluripotent stem cells. Being involved in research that employs advanced high through put robotics and “seeing” science as it happens are the most exciting parts of my job. There is never a boring day in my work and the position provides me with plenty of opportunities for extending technical skills and knowledge on various technologies.

I’m also mum to a 7 year old boy and in my spare time I love good cocktails in company of my friends.

Julie Swales – Field and Laboratory Technician, School of Geography

I have a BSc (Hons) in Animal and Plant Biology and an MSc in Toxicology. My role as technician is multi-faceted and I get to participate in a variety of interesting research and teaching activities in the area of environmental monitoring and climate change.

Going out on a boat to take samples at our local nature reserve is the favourite part of my job as I get to see the wildlife and seasonal changes each month. In my spare time I enjoy sport and exercise, outdoor activities, travelling, and trying anything new!

Jes Squire – Teaching Technician (Anatomy Technician Team Leader), School of Veterinary Medicine and Science

Following my A-Levels, I began my career in the Nottingham NHS Department of Pathology as a Laboratory Assistant assigned to the Tissue Retention Inquiries. I was later employed by the university to maintain pathology specimens for the Medical degrees. My latest role as Team Leader for the technicians in Veterinary Anatomy involves responsibility for the identification and sourcing of cadaver material and the preparation and maintenance of pro-sections used to demonstrate anatomy to students. I demonstrate practical techniques such as aseptic surgery preparation, and have responsibility for safety and the training of staff.

Outside of work I enjoy maintaining my motorcycle, visiting the countryside and historical buildings by motorbike, bicycle and foot, and camping. I have an interest in the canal network and lived on a narrow boat for five years.

Tina Caunt – Teaching Technician, School of Chemistry

I love being a technician, the best part is the variety in the work, no two days are the same! My role is crucial to ensuring the smooth running of the undergraduate teaching laboratories. I check that all equipment is in good working order, make up solutions and check everything is ready to ensure a positive experience for our undergraduates. I have a BA in Combined Studies from the University of Nottingham and progressed to this role from a Store Technician role.

Outside of work I am currently researching my family history to see if there is anything interesting lurking in my family’s past!

Lauren Axten – Teaching Technician, School of Veterinary Medicine and Science

I studied animal care at Brooksby Melton College prior to my technical role here at Nottingham. One of the most interesting projects I’m currently working on is a giraffe skeleton which I’m currently cleaning and articulating. The best bit about being a technician is that that you get to do such a wide variety of things so there’s never a dull moment.

Cathy Wells – Technical Team Leader, Division of Nutritional Sciences, School of Biosciences

I graduated from the University of York with a degree in Biology and worked at the University of Nottingham for 2 years as a research technician in the Medical School. I then moved to the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition to work as a cell culture technician growing cat, dog and fish cells. I’ve worked in the School of Biosciences for 7 years, managing the Cell Culture facility.

I was promoted to Team Leader just over a year ago, and the role is hugely diverse. I still manage the Cell Culture facility but I’m now also responsible for safety across the Division, line management of technical staff and building and laboratory equipment management. It’s a huge role but I’m enjoying getting to know so many more people at the University than before.

Outside of work I am a huge bookworm, I love going to music festivals and gigs and looking after my 2 gorgeous cats.

Sarah Thomas – Model Design Technician, Faculty of Engineering

I’m a professional Model Maker in the Department of Architecture and Built Environment. I liaise with students and staff on prototyping projects by helping them to realise their designs from start to finish. We use both traditional and digital fabrication methods including CNC controlled 5 Axis Routing and a range of additive manufacturing equipment.

I also create and teach basic CAD skills and best practices. Bringing digital designs into reality using rapid prototyping technology can be a challenge within an industry that is still fairly new to this technology but teaching a new generation of Architects the importance of ‘designing to make’ is intellectually satisfying.

I have a BA Hons Model Design and an MA Art Psychotherapy. I have a fascination with Body Modification and the psychology behind it; my MA final thesis explored parallels between self-harm and tattooing. I have been practising Wing Chun Kung Fu for 8 years and live with my husband and 2 cats.

Teresa Needham – Physical Geography Laboratories Manager, School of Geography

I graduated with a chemistry degree and have qualified teacher status. I contribute to environmental monitoring and climate change research as well teaching research techniques to students. I love being a technician because my work is diverse, has real world impact and I continually learn new skills. I enjoy the great outdoors with my border collie and have always been interested in the environment.

Hannah Beska – Trainee Technician, Faculty of Engineering

I began my apprenticeship in 2011 after deciding that university was too expensive! I’ve always been interested in science and when I saw the apprenticeship advertised my instinct was to just go for it. I’ve learnt skills in engineering including welding, fabrication, turning, milling, fitting, chemistry and biochemistry. Alongside these practical skills, I have gained a Level 3 NVQ and BTEC and I am currently studying towards a Level 4 HNC.

I love turning student project ideas into reality and I love that here at the university I can find out about anything – there is always someone who can teach me and I enjoy being able to pass my knowledge on to others. One of the most exciting parts of my job was the opportunity to contribute to a research project on anti-malarial drugs – I feel like I am really making a difference.

Outside of work I love playing computer games and board games, and I love my pets – an axolotl called Gill and a dog called Milo.

Denise Mclean – Senior Technician, School of Life Sciences

I work in the Advanced Microscopy Unit and my areas of expertise are sample preparation and imaging of biological samples using transmission and scanning electron microscopy (TEM/SEM). My job is really exciting, I love the diversity and the range of research projects I’m able to be involved in – from the infancy of technique development through to the final stages of publication.

Joanne Sanders – Teaching Technician, School of Veterinary Medicine and Science

I’ve been working at the university for 18 months as a teaching technician. I specialise in brain removal! As a technician I am learning all the time and at the moment I am training in histology which I’m really enjoying.

Prior to my role here I spent 16 years in a private breeding and research company working my way up from a husbandry technician to a Group leader/NACWO/licensee, where I had the pleasure of working within a variety of research environments and with a variety of techniques. I always enjoy learning as much as possible about the work I I’ve done during each project and the science behind it.

In my spare time I go to kettle bell classes, enjoy swimming and I love to sing-along to Frozen with my god daughter and her sisters. My husband and I are doing up a house we hope to move into soon.

Julietta Marquez – Technical Specialist, School of Biosciences

My expertise is in Crop Sciences. I started late on my science career path, I enjoyed Biology at school and did well in it but at 18 I lacked the confidence to apply for University. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I decided to study for a degree as I realised that all my friends who had degrees, were financially better off than me and carving out a career for themselves.  After completing my BSc(Hons) Zoology at Nottingham I worked as a technician at the university, helping out with field trial sampling. I was subsequently promoted into a research technician role. I have recently been promoted to my current role where I juggle managing the labs and growth rooms whilst contributing to research.

My research area looks at how plants have evolved to survive different environmental conditions such as hypoxia. Plant roots can experience severe low o2 conditions during waterlogging and what’s interesting is that plants have developed a way of sensing low o2 in their environment by adapting their molecular mechanisms to improve their chances of survival. These mechanisms involve protein degradation and I test this by staining Arabadopsis plants and seeds and taking microscopic images of them. I’ve been doing this for a few years now but I still get a buzz when I look down the microscope and see part of a plant stained blue!

Even though my degree is in Zoology and I’m now working with plants, I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter whether you’re working on animals, plants or humans, it’s the science and discoveries that make it interesting and the work environment of course! At the University I am surrounded by lots of female scientists who are both inspiring and fun to work with.

When I’m not at work, I love going to the theatre, climbing mountains and campaigning for more trees in our local park!

And so….

Hopefully my colleagues and I have given you an idea of the diversity and excitement of the technical role within STEM.

It’s vital that our “secret” technical community within science continues to gain visibility and recognition – recognition for the essential practical and technological skills we bring that make the advancement of scientific knowledge possible, and visibility to ensure that young people (and ScienceGrrls!) aspire to a scientific technical career.

For further careers advice regarding technical roles in science see the FutureMorph Discovering Technicians website. The UK needs highly skilled technicians more than ever before, will you be one of them?

Kelly Vere @kellyvere