Imperial College London

Technical excellence – prestigious Papin Technical Prize nominees announced

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Left: Paul Brown (MBE). Right: Matthew Watkins.

Left: Paul Brown (MBE). Right: Matthew Watkins.

The prestigious Papin Technical Prizes celebrate the excellence and innovation of technicians across the academic sector.

The prizes are dedicated to highlighting the role technicians play in supporting higher education and research. Individuals and teams from across Imperial feature in the Papin Prize shortlist – huge congratulations to all!

Lifetime achievement nomination

Paul Brown (Physics), who has worked on projects such as the Solar Orbiter and the Interstellar Mapping Acceleration Probe (IMAP) which is currently being built, has been shortlisted for the Lifetime Achievement Award.

From designing and manufacturing equipment to running some experiments... it’s right that technical staff are recognised in the correct way when they have made a significant contribution to research projects. Paul Brown Mechanical Instrumentation Workshop Manager, Department of Physics

Paul started his career in an industrial setting, making tooling for casting Dualit toasters, and says "as a young apprentice then, I would never have imagined that one day I would be managing a workshop in a world-class university supporting world-leading research including missions into space!" In 2017 he was recognised in the Queen’s honour's list and made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) for services to Higher Education. "Considering my parents only first came to Britain in the 1960s from Jamaica, this is something I am immensely proud of", he says.

He’s keen to emphasise the crucial role technician’s play in experimental research: "from designing and manufacturing equipment to even running some experiments. It’s right that technical staff are recognised in the correct way when they have made a significant contribution to research projects when scientific papers are published, this can be as an author or in the acknowledgements. In 2022 the Science Museum will be opening a gallery to shine a light on the role technicians play in the world we live in."

He continues: "My advice to anyone interested in becoming a technician is to try and shadow someone in the area you are interested in, maybe on a work experience programme, to get a feel for what the role involves. If you’re older you might consider an apprenticeship similar to the Imperial Mechanical and Electronics technician apprentice programme."

Read more about Paul’s experience as a lab technician in: From student labs to outer space.

Newcomer award nomination

Matthew Watkins (Physics) has been shortlisted for a Newcomer Award. His technician career began when he took part in Imperial’s Technician Apprenticeship Scheme, which led to his current role as Workshop Technician in the Department of Physics. "Over the four-year apprenticeship scheme I developed a wide range of skills and knowledge from the amazing staff often hidden away in the basements supporting the key research that Imperial does every single day in STEM fields," he says. "I’ve always been hands on and enjoy a variety of work, and by working as a technician within research we are posed with a huge array of challenges, each very different from the next."

One of the most satisfying aspects of the role is having an impact in such a huge number of projects and seeing where they end up and how they evolve over time. Matthew Watkins Workshop Technician, Department of Physics

As well as supporting the research carried out within the Department, through the design and manufacture of scientific apparatus that allow academics to carry out their experiments, the Physics tech team also turned their attention to support the Physics student labs during the COVID-19 pandemic, by manufacturing hundreds of mini experiments for students to carry out at home so they could continue their studies despite the challenges posed by the lockdowns. 

Matthew highlights how satisfying it is to gain an overview of a department’s research activity through the role of technician: "technicians play a vital role within the field of research, being one of the few groups to have a hand in almost every project within a department, whether that’s support from the workshops or within the labs."

"One of the most satisfying aspects of the role is having an impact in such a huge number of projects and seeing where they end up and how they evolve over time," he continues, "as well as overcoming the daily challenges posed by working on such specialised projects."

His – unexpected – Papin nomination means a lot: "after receiving a strange email in my inbox I was completely shocked to see I had been nominated, let alone shortlisted, for the Papin award! I had no idea my name had been put forward, but it feels amazing to be recognised for the work I’ve done within the Department."

Does he have tips for those who wish to pursue a career as a technician? "I’d always recommend looking at apprenticeship opportunities, or work experience, to gain valuable knowledge and an understanding of such a rewarding role."

All the best!

The Department of Physics is supporting all their nominees to attend the award conference and stay for the evening reception, which includes their whole teaching technician team headed by Graham Axtell. The reception event will take place on 10 November – wishing all our Imperial nominees the best of luck! – and huge thanks for the work you do in supporting Imperial’s research and education.

Reporter

Claudia Cannon

Claudia Cannon
Faculty of Natural Sciences