A workshop for technicians, by technicians

Originally published in Technically Speaking March 2019

Here in the Faculty of Environment (FoE), a group of technicians have been discussing for a while how to share our knowledge and skills between Schools.

The fruit of these discussions was the first cross-School technician workshop on chemical extractions and digests (see below). We thought it would be a great opportunity for us all to meet and exchange knowledge, so the Faculty kindly provided refreshments and on Thursday 28th Feb fourteen technicians met over coffee, tea, and pastries.

The workshop turned out to be exactly what we needed. We were amazed at just how similar all our experiences of being a technician are and at the commonalities in the challenges we face.

Definition of extractions and digests
The way we defined extraction and digest for the purpose of the workshop.

We chose the topic because extraction and digests form a large part of the laboratory work done across the FoE. Many technicians in the FoE have in-depth knowledge of different aspects of this subject so we wanted to start the process of sharing and pooling that knowledge. These topics also cause technicians issues around where our role ends and the academics’ role begins. We often find lab users (and external customers) approach technical staff for advice and information on how to perform extractions and digests that are key to their projects. Lacking full context of the project we can only really give various options for the user to discuss with their supervisor. Unfortunately, it is often the case that neither the user or supervisor have the knowledge required to make a judgement on those options and so the technician’s general advice is sometimes misapplied or recast as holy writ. The summary of starting points for the workshop is therefore:

  • Sharing our knowledge, skills, and equipment
  • Discussing the best way to deal with lab user enquiries
  • Discussing how to effectively communicate highlight our knowledge and contributions to lab users & academics

We heard three talks followed by time for questions, as well as a roundtable discussion and laboratory tours. It was suggested that having technicians from another Faculty would be good for the perspective they could bring and so it proved. Simon Lloyd and Adrian Cunliffe (both from Faculty of Engineering) were invaluable for the insights they provided.

Sharing our knowledge, skills, and equipment:

The talks were informative, interesting, and generated a lot of discussion. Stephen Reid started us off with a talk from the analyst’s point of view. He particularly highlighted the importance of thinking about the method of analysis before starting an experiment. David Ashley took us through some of the pitfalls to avoid for when choosing a type of extraction and how to make sure you’ve picked the correct one. Finally, Simon Lloyd took us through some of the excellent facilities available in Engineering.

Discussing the best way to deal with lab user enquires:

Something that jumped out from all three talks, and the subsequent discussions, was just how much time the technicians around the table spent with lab users going through the different options, providing invaluable support to users’ work. The complicating issue with these discussions was often a lack of communication between user, supervisor and technician. One option that was suggested to improve communication was to get technicians involved in project meetings early on.

That would be an academic matter...

For situations where this didn’t (or couldn’t) happen, we talked about how to set boundaries and explain that the situation had become part of the academic remit. However, deciding where the boundary falls proved very difficult and we realised that one of the best ways to get over this is to improve training for laboratory users to enable them to make these decisions with our guidance. Unfortunately, we all agreed that lab users often lack the basic analytical skills needed to decide when a given extraction or digest technique was appropriate.

One of the ideas to improve the training received prior to lab access included mandatory and detailed ‘science inductions’, as analogous to H&S inductions, which all users would have to undergo. Adrian Cunliffe mentioned a relevant set of training material he was working on, which he is willing to discuss further. Finally, we agreed to meet again to discuss more formal training for PhD students specifically, this time with representatives from academic staff, PhD students, and other relevant groups to get their input.

Discussing how to highlight our knowledge and input to lab users & academics:
Discussions moved on to how technicians get acknowledged for the input we give. The room represented the full range of experiences with some technicians named as authors on papers, others with their name in the acknowledgments, and others receiving not even a thank you. We discussed how we could find ways of getting our input to these projects better acknowledged – no definite conclusions were drawn but one option discussed was knocking on academic’s doors and talking about our contributions.

After lunch we took a tour of the laboratories in the School of Earth and Environment and the School of Geography. It was a great opportunity to discuss more about the specifics of extractions by viewing the available equipment and contextualizing the methods we make use of. Several potential future collaborations were discussed as well as the potential for equipment borrowing. Time constraints on all our work were highlighted as the main barrier to these types of collaborations.

Conclusion

The day was a great success and all participants agreed that we need more events like this, namely opportunities to bring technicians from across our Faculty, and the University, together. It was also great to talk through solutions to some of the issues we face. Even if the solutions might be not immediately applied, or straightforward to achieve, it was good to feel like we might have some control over the issues we face. We hope to organize more events like this and would love to hear from other Faculties who might want to get involved.

Andy Connelly
on behalf of the FoE technicians

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