First published May 2018 in The Journal.
Vikki is a laboratory technician at the University of Nottingham in the School of Biosciences. She looks after students, bakes, and autoclaves heifer poo. This is her #TechnicianJourney.
I’ve been a lab tech in Nottingham for a year and I’ve learnt so much in that time. I learned a lot when I was a school technician, but working in a university laboratory is completely different. In one of the high schools where I was a technician the kids called me ‘the lady in the cupboard’. They didn’t realise that behind the prep room door there was a whole laboratory, so they’d ask, “Is Miss in her cupboard?” In my new job, we let the kids into the cupboard. In fact, we encourage it!
When my children were little I worked nights in a nursing home as a care worker and then on the bank at the hospital. I’d always wanted to be a midwife and I got offered a permanent job as a Health Care Support Worker on the delivery ward. Then, when my youngest was five, my home life changed completely, and I ended up on my own with three small children. I wondered if I should I just get myself a little job and just be happy, but I decided to go university as a mature student. I realised that being a midwife wouldn’t work so I applied to the University of Worcester to do a human biology degree – it was the only subject I was good at in school. Worcester was really supportive – if my children were ever poorly, there was someone at the end of the phone to send me notes for the lectures I’d missed.
When I was at university I realised I loved working in labs – I absolutely loved it. In the third year there was a module where you could work in the labs, and that was it; as soon as I did that I got the bug. I started off helping other students out and I ended up doing longer there, most of my third year. One of the technicians suggested that I could work as a technician in a school as they have more family-friendly hours than working in a university and was possibly not as stressful, so that’s what I did. In the sense that it was more family-friendly hours, it was perfect for me.
I graduated in 2006 and over the next ten years I worked in about five or six different schools around Kidderminster. I don’t know what it is about being in a school, but people don’t seem to stay very long. Regardless of where you work in a school, it can become stagnant quite quickly. It was hard work as well – you are normally the only technician in the school covering three subjects: physics, chemistry and biology. There was also an idea that support staff only need paying in term time. When are you supposed to PAT test everything? When do you try out new experiments?
As a technician, I learnt to beg, borrow, and steal very quickly. When students asked what I did I would say that I’m a magician – I make practicals appear. There were times when three members of staff wanted the same piece of equipment, at the same time, in three different rooms. These were the things I’d have to deal with every day – a real lack of resources. It is completely swapped now; in university, it is our time that is lacking, especially when you are in the teaching lab and there are three or four project students all asking you questions.
The University of Nottingham laboratories I work in now are food microbiology laboratories; we look at all sorts of yeasts and bacteria. I love working here. I feel appreciated, people say “thank you”. It is as simple as that.
We currently have lots of final year undergraduates doing their projects in the laboratory. They ask so many questions. Sometimes they’ll ask me something I can look up and other times I assess whether there are any post-docs or PhD students who might be able to help. I am quite open with them – I have only been here 12 months and I am learning too. When I am not helping students I am running autoclaves, doing the washing up, and doing maintenance stuff. One project is looking at antibiotic resistance in heifer poo. Autoclaving poo is not at the top of my list, although I’ve only had to run out of the lab once! If you ask my kids what my job is they say, “Mum cooks poo”.
There is also progression here. My line manager knows that I don’t want to stay at my current level, but management is not for me. I’d miss being in a lab, but I want to progress.
I wanted to be a technician, and now I am a technician. We need to be recognised as an actual proper profession – I sent my RSciTech application off a few weeks ago. I get a bit annoyed when people gloss over the whole technician thing; I think that is what I didn’t like when I was a school technician.
Being a school technician was also much more isolated and stressful. I used to bake a lot of bread to unwind – I’d do a lot of kneading! I love baking and my kids knew that it was my little den. They’d know that “Mum’s had a stressful day, so we’ll leave her in the kitchen”. I met Paul Hollywood once and said, “Hello Paul Hollywood, my future husband, how are you?” Everyone around just stood there open mouthed!
My life was: left school, had babies, got married. So, now I am doing what I should have done when I was 18-30. I think you appreciate it way more when you’re older. I turned 40 and my friends took me on a plane. I’d never been on a plane before in my life and I can’t wait to do it again! Two years ago, I decided that I was going to start dating again. I met someone who captains a local cricket team. I’ve never really watched sport but I kind of get cricket; I kind of understand what is going on. It is a lovely, friendly atmosphere and I get to bake cake for the cricket teas.
I have applied to go on the Great British Bake Off for the last few years and am trying again this year. I put ‘laboratory technician’ down as my job on the application form – after all, baking is a science. I love being in the kitchen and I love working in a laboratory. I love watching an experiment get the results you want. I also love when you don’t get what you want and then you’ve got to work it out. I love all of that – it is just so interesting. I love introducing the students to it, I love working here and I don’t want to go back into the cupboard.
As told to Andy Connelly