Clare Stevenson’s #TechnicianJourney

First published in the IST newsletter March 2018

Clare is passionate about her work, about technicians, and about dancing. She is currently a Research Assistant at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. This is her #TechnicianJourney.

I’ve loved dancing from a young age, starting with the kind of dancing that happens in Darlington nightclubs; the kind of dancing that meant I didn’t get the A-level grades I’d hoped for. My parents really wanted me to do medicine because my dad and grandad were doctors and my mum was a nurse. I was supposed to be the next doctor. I always felt that was what people wanted me to do, but I discovered drinking, going out, and having a good time.

Clare Stephenson #TechnicianJourney
Clare Stephenson #TechnicianJourney

I applied to polytechnics to do biochemistry and universities to do medicine, but without the grades for medicine I went to do biochemistry at Liverpool Polytechnic, now Liverpool John Moores University. I picked the course because it was four years with a year in industry and I was quite happy because I’d done it off my own back and made my own choices.

When I finished my degree, I could have done a PhD straight away, but my year in industry had given me a taste for work, so I got a job at Huntington Life Sciences as a technician. I was testing drug metabolism on animals; my claim to fame is that I worked on Viagra! During my three years at Huntington I became responsible for two members of staff, did a lot of the costings for the projects, and led a lot of the technical work. However, three years was enough time to realise that I wasn’t going to do contract drug laboratory work forever, so I had to make a different move.

I applied for a research technician position in protein crystallography at John Innes Centre in Norwich. I went to the interview and the interviewer, who is now my boss, was just so enthusiastic that I knew I really wanted to work there. Luckily, I got the job and I started in 1996. Looking back, I had a lot of transferrable skills and I’d worked with proteins a bit at university but I didn’t really know anything much. I did an online course in crystallography in my own time; that was equivalent to half an MSc and it taught me some serious crystallography. Otherwise, it was all on-the-job training.

Protein crystallography is used for working out the three-dimensional atomic structure of proteins. Knowing a protein’s structure helps you to understand what that protein does and potentially design new drugs that target it. To determine the structure, you first need to purify and crystallise the protein. The crystals are then store it in liquid nitrogen before transferring it to a source of x-rays for analysis; we normally use the Diamond synchrotron in Oxfordshire. A robot picks the crystal out and fires the x-rays at it. We can operate the robots from the office in Norwich and collect the diffraction data; this often happens in the middle of night so a strong cup of coffee is needed! The diffraction data is then used to solve the structure; the whole structure determination process can take weeks to months. The final structures are then written it up for publication and deposited in the protein data bank.

I guess my job has evolved a lot over the last 21 years; I have been promoted twice, I did my PhD part time, and I had a baby as well! I really wanted to get a PhD because in academia you’re judged differently if you don’t have one. It didn’t change me as a person – I mean, it always changes you as a person. You learn transferable skills and develop independence, it’s good for that, but I don’t believe you need a PhD. It was a hard, seven-year slog. I was lucky that I could do a lot of the practical work as part of my own work. However, I did all the writing and all the extra stuff in my own time. Looking back, it was probably the toughest time of my life as I was working full time and I had baby boy, Freddie, who was only two when I finished. That was hard.

About five years ago our academic research group was changed into something called a Technical Scientific Platform. This means that we don’t do our own research but provide a service for other people. I am kind of like a technical expert; if people want to crystallise their proteins, collect data, find a structure solution, or anything really, they come to me and my boss. My role can be very varied: I can be repairing robots that don’t work, I can be preparing crystals for Diamond synchrotron, training students, solving structures, refining structures, and I can be writing publications.

I work on protein crystallisation 60% of the time with my line manager. He runs the platform and I work as his technician – I guess you’d call it that. We don’t have technicians and non-technicians, it is not a distinction for us, really. From what I understand about universities they have academics and technicians and they are different, whereas here, I guess we don’t have the distinction in the same way. We have project leaders, post docs, students, and everyone else! I am part of the ‘everyone else’ and here we call this group Research and Support Staff.

When I am not working on protein crystallography, I run a separate platform called ‘Biophysical Analysis’, which runs biophysical techniques that study biommolecular interactions. On both platforms people pay for my time, for using the instruments, and for accessing consumables. We have a policy for acknowledgements on publications. If I have helped somebody just a tiny little bit I wouldn’t expect to be on a publication but it would be nice to get an acknowledgement for the service. If you do something they couldn’t have done without your in-depth help, then we’d normally get on the publications. I’ve got more than fifty publications through this policy.

At work I’m quite a control freak, organised and busy, so it’s nice to switch off outside work through dance. Not the nightclub kind – now I prefer partner dancing where, as a woman, you have to be the opposite of a control freak. You have to be completely switched off and do whatever your partner leads. I started with salsa about eight years ago, but I soon discovered kizomba and there was no way back. I like the music better; I like what is called ghetto zouk music, which is quite similar to R&B. It is a partner dance but I don’t have a set partner; instead a group of us travel together and it is very sociable. The dance is from Angola but I go to London to dance a lot; I’ve also been to Italy, Spain and Portugal. I am going to Malaga to dance at a festival soon.

Clare Stephenson #TechnicianJourney
Clare Stephenson #TechnicianJourney

I guess I’ve always been willing to try new things, both during and outside work. I always say, ‘Give new things a go as you have got nothing to lose by trying’ That’s how I got into kizomba and it’s how I’ve got so far at work. If you take a chance and do something well you tend to get asked to do it again. So, it opens doors and opportunities. I believe that there is such a lot of opportunity in science – some never lead anywhere, but some do. As long as you spread your net widely then something will work. You can always make time for something you passionately believe in and if you are enthusiastic other people see this as well.

As told to Andy Connelly

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