Imperial College London

How is effective lab management integral to the research process?

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Allison holds her IST Fellowship award certificate

Allison holds her IST Fellowship award certificate

IST Fellow, Allison Hunter, is the Technical Operations Manager in the Department of Life Sciences.

Recently she was awarded a prestigious Institute of Science and Technology (IST) Fellowship. We caught up with Allison to find out more about her work, involvement in the UK technician community and tips for anyone interested in pursuing a career in this area. How does a lab manager’s role underpin the College’s research activities and why is it a vital component in our drive to make labs more sustainable, helping departments save people power, time, money and resources? 

First of all, many congratulations on your IST Fellowship Allison! How did it feel to be awarded, and why is it important to highlight the work of lab technicians?

The Fellowship means I’m considered a senior professional in terms of what I can offer back to the technician community. It feels really nice to have that recognition! Allison Hunter Technical Operations Manager, Department of Life Sciences

Thank you! I think technicians across the university sector often get on with their work behind-the-scenes and don’t shout about it very much. These schemes of recognition and professional development encourage technicians to be proactive and look for new challenges. It’s a great motivation for technical staff.

For the past twenty years the IST has supported my development by establishing a really helpful technician-focused community. It has also provided invaluable training opportunities in skills such as finance, procurement, recruitment and health and safety – all of which are vital in managing a lab well. In a sense, it has come full circle. I came in at the bottom, and with IST’s support I’ve taken on more senior roles and worked my way up to being a fully developed technical manager with lots of experience in many varied areas. The Fellowship means I’m considered a senior professional in terms of what I can offer back to the technician community, and it feels really nice to have that recognition from them! There’s still a lot for me to learn and improve – I don’t think I’ll ever stop refreshing my knowledge, but it’s nice to look back and feel proud of the things I’ve accomplished. I was the beneficiary of a lot of other people’s wisdom and it’s completely natural to want to give back.

Tell us more about the work that led to your IST Fellowship

Mine is a problem-solving job. Technical Operations Managers try to facilitate better quality science, in an often quite behind-the-scenes way – and that’s how it should be – unseen and seamless! Our work should make it easier for the academics and technicians to get their work done.

When I first started in the Department of Life Sciences (DoLS) we did lots of refurbishments to improve its infrastructure, for example in the plant growth rooms and malaria insectaries.

  • Researcher in the Baum Lab Insectary

    Researcher in the Baum Lab Insectary

  • Insectary (left) and plant growth room (right) on Imperial's South Kensington campus

    Insectary (left) and plant growth room (right) on Imperial's South Kensington campus

  • The DoLS South Ken tech team: Javaid Iqbal, Alex Sierra-Rodriguez, Aaron Williams, Allison Hunter, Steve Swan, Fiona May, Danny Peckham, Dina Fonseca, Lukasz Bukowski and James Mansfield (not shown). Ola Shobawale has now replaced Aaron Williams.

    The DoLS South Ken tech team: Javaid Iqbal, Alex Sierra-Rodriguez, Aaron Williams, Allison Hunter, Steve Swan, Fiona May, Danny Peckham, Dina Fonseca, Lukasz Bukowski and James Mansfield (not shown). Ola Shobawale has now replaced Aaron Williams.

The research in DoLS produces all kinds of different waste, which needs to be treated correctly. When I arrived, the sterilising of dry goods, media and biohazardous waste was not very reliable due to old equipment failures. We recently completed a major three-year autoclave infrastructure project to overhaul it, but of course you can’t just shut everything down during the refurb. Researchers need to keep on working throughout, and some level of service must keep operating because you can’t just close the labs. Whether it’s a small building project in one lab or a major infrastructure project across the whole estate, it’s the same principle.

It’s about staff development too – getting the Technician Commitment going (to get technicians professionally registered) was really important to me. I think if you’ve got good facilities you need good technical staff to run them – people who understand the science and the STEMM research process. At the end of the day, a lot of research is paid for by the taxpayer and it’s really important we give value for money in the most efficient way possible.

So your work is having a direct impact on saving the Department money?

The DoLS labs are highly serviced and can be very expensive to run – our estates bill is enormous – and those costs can be hidden to staff who are, unsurprisingly, focused on their research.

Academics drop off their goods to be sterilised and pick them up when they’re clean and ready for re-use in the lab. In reality, however, the autoclave refurb was a one million pound project funded by the Faculties of Natural Sciences and Medicine, plus departments, which is also the case for its ongoing costs – the energy, water and technician time it takes to run.

I service a thousand researchers across three buildings – if I get it wrong, nobody can work because we can’t get rid of the waste, so it has real implications if you don’t do it properly. Allison Hunter Technical Operations Manager, Department of Life Sciences

An autoclave refurb is a once in a lifetime procurement – I’ll have retired by the time they need replacing in DoLS! It can therefore be difficult to get advice on how best to approach it, as it happens so rarely. All the autoclaves in our buildings had different settings and we didn’t know why – there was no manual! It took three of us – myself, and two of my technicians, Fiona May and James Mansfield – three months to figure out what we needed, and I didn’t want anyone else to have to go through that again elsewhere.

These are big projects and you could make a lot of mistakes that are very expensive to rectify! There’s a lot of responsibility involved – I service a thousand researchers across three buildings – if I get it wrong, nobody can work because we can’t get rid of the waste, so it has real implications if you don’t do it properly. For that reason, it was really important to me to share our insights into the autoclave project with the wider technician community at the S-Lab Birmingham Conference in April 2019, to make the process smoother for others so people don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. One of the main points I make is that you really rely on the support and expertise of other colleagues in Purchasing Services, Faculty and College Safety, Faculty and College estate and project teams and Soft Services as well as your technical team. It is a collaborative effort.

In DoLS, the South Kensington tech team oversees more than 5,000 autoclave cycles a year. We’ve now put a system in place that monitors autoclave use, which is helping us to measure how efficient our infrastructure is, for which we won a Provost award. Based on this data we’ll be working to make the service operate more efficiently, saving time, money, resources and effort.

So it’s not just about saving money, but also about preserving resources and making the practice of science more sustainable?

Yes absolutely, it’s about the buildings, the research that’s going on in them, the staff who are working with our facilities, and also sustainability from an equipment point of view. I’m on the College’s Sustainability Strategy Advisory Group. The next thing on my agenda in DoLS is to do a big freezer sustainability run.

The Sustainability group draws people in from all kinds of areas and levels of the College and I think that’s what’s needed – you need everybody involved. It’s not just one person’s job to sort it, it’s a complex mesh working towards the same goal. There’s a lot more we can do to reduce our CO2 output and production of waste, and all of this also saves money! If you can recycle more it saves the College a lot of money in waste disposal, and it’s important to have the metrics to be able to quantify that too.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?

We’ve got staff who are doing COVID-19 research projects, so at the beginning of the first UK lockdown we had to do a whole lab refurbishment to dig out and validate equipment for them to get everything up and running. We’ve been busy keeping everything ticking along during lockdowns, maintaining all the plants and insects – for example, wheat and barley, mosquitos and Drosophila – all of these need feeding and watering, and making sure everything is ready for the times when researchers and students are able to get back into the lab.

If someone’s already figured something out and they share it, it frees people up to problem solve other issues. Allison Hunter Technical Operations Manager, Department of Life Sciences

I also instigated the COVID-19 research page on the National Technician Development Centre (NTDC) website, collecting together skills and resources for the pandemic. For example, at the start of the pandemic Alex Fergusson (Mechanical Engineering) used 3D printers to produce headbands for visors, to help with the shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment). Anyone with access to a 3D printer could print these designs out from wherever they were based nationally, and donate them to local care homes. I felt it was important for us to share these ideas about how people could support the effort in different ways.

Eddie Hartrick from Safety and Chemical Engineering added information about how to make hand sanitiser, and Roya Haghighat-Khah devised one of the registration forms that the College used to create a volunteer database. Pooling these resources onto the shared NTDC webpage meant that other universities could use them as a template – and lots of other people from universities elsewhere contributed, for example I gained consent from the Crick for their Covid-19 testing protocols. Again, it’s about knowledge sharing and not having to reinvent the wheel – if someone’s already figured something out and they share it, it frees people up to problem solve other issues.

Why did you shift from academic research into a lab technician role?

Initially I was very torn, I must admit. At the time I applied for my first lab management job, I was on a really interesting five-year research project in forebrain development. A big part of the reason I shifted was that a being a lab manager means you’ve got a permanent job – the security of it was appealing – and on a personal level that was the right decision. Plus, instead of having an academic’s very focused and deep understanding of one scientific area, as a lab manager you have to have a shallower, but much broader overview of a lot of different areas, and that for me is just as interesting.

As research evolves and grows you get asked all kinds of questions that you don’t know the answer to, but it’s your job to find out! I’m always using my biological expertise, drawing on my experience of knowing who to consult, what to read, how to access certain information. I’m always learning new things and still very much embedded in the academic research environment.

Any advice for those interested in a research technician career?

It’s really useful to have some background understanding of academic research, whether that’s via an undergraduate or postgraduate student project, or as a postdoc or technician. This gives you a good understanding of what academic rigour is, if you then hope to develop into a more senior role. At Imperial we’ve put in place training courses to support our technicians with key additional skills they need in order to develop, in areas like leadership and supervision, health and safety, procurement, finance, recruitment. Fitting the odd training course in here and there in these areas allows you to build up an awareness of many different aspects of this line of work. As a technician, if you’re running a lab for your PI, that counts towards valuable experience. You can get professionally registered and set up a continuing professional development log, noting down meetings that you have with different people, the things you organise for your group, any procurement that you’ve done – these will all provide great, proactive examples of your experience that will help if you’re applying for a research manager job.

This will also help you identify which aspects of the job you enjoy most, and what areas you might want to develop in your career – a safety route, or a procurement purchasing route, or is there a lab type in particular that you’d like to manage? It’s a very varied field of work. Being a technician gives you access to a wide variety of careers, so it’s all about trying things out and seeing what you like. Technicians sometimes don’t even realise the kinds of development opportunities that are available to them; the IST and Imperial do great courses – some of which are accredited – so I really encourage people to take a look at what’s on offer. It’s a varied career if you want it to be.

Apart from the Sustainability Advisory Group, what’s next on your agenda?

My team is figuring out how to keep the temperature-controlled rooms going to keep the bees, palms, mosquitos and coffee plants alive. A £6,000 generator bill looks pretty reasonable when you think about the £500,000 contents of those freezers! Allison Hunter Technical Operations Manager, Department of Life Sciences

We’ve got power cuts going on at Silwood Park at the moment, so my team is figuring out how to keep the temperature-controlled rooms going to keep all the bees, palms, mosquitos and coffee plants alive. There might be the assumption that we can just switch off the power for eight hours to avoid spending £6,000 on a generator, but that’s definitely not the case – a £6,000 generator bill suddenly looks pretty reasonable when you think about the need to preserve the £500,000 contents of those freezers! So, it’s putting things into context, understanding the wider implications of decisions and translating the needs of different groups of people to each other.

When a contractor comes on site ready to refurbish a lab, they just want to switch everything off and move everybody out, because that’s the easiest thing to do from their perspective, but very rarely in a research environment can you do that. You have to manage the process between the contractors and the many researchers that use that building to make sure decisions and compromises are made that work for everyone.

It’s a very people-centred job and there are always new academics arriving with new projects. DoLS is a huge department and our researchers are doing everything from atomic level crystallography, biomolecular structure, the components that cells are made from and how they work, immunity and disease processes, development, evolution, behaviour, bioinformatics through to whole ecosystems – it’s certainly never dull!

Reporter

Claudia Cannon

Claudia Cannon
Faculty of Natural Sciences