UoM Technician Talk, Episode 1

UoM technicians discuss their different experiences during the campus shutdown. Featuring:

  • Scott Miller – B15 Model making workshop, School of Environment, Education and Development (Humanities)
  • Emma Enston – Dept of Chemistry (School of Natural Sciences, FSE)
  • Tom Bishop – Geography Dept, School of Environment, Education and Development (Humanities)
  • Toria Stafford – Deputy Health and Safety Advisor for Dept Chemistry, FSE

Hosted by Mike Hughes – Teaching Labs Manager at Dept of Chemistry (School of Natural Sciences, FSE).  Mike brings together staff who volunteered to talk about their very different experiences of the Campus shutdown due to Covid-19, and then the start of the phased reopening. It highlights the many and varied ways in which technical staff support the teaching, research and safe operation of activities at the university.   We hope you find it useful and if you are interested in getting invovled in future events, please do get in touch: email technical.excellence@manchester.ac.uk

TEaM Jodrell Bank Summer Trip

The TEaM summer trip took place on June 18th, and we had a great turnout of more than 40 technical staff. Meeting on campus, we piled onto the coach and made our way to leafy Cheshire, and the UNESCO world heritage site that is Jodrell Bank.

The first part of the tour was a walk round the site led by Mike Anderson, the Site Manager and Safety Advisor, who filled us in on the history of the University’s presence at Jodrell Bank (it started as a biological research station), and Sir Bernard Lovell’s reasons for moving his radio astronomy research there (Manchester’s tram system caused too many radio interference spikes as the current-collecting trolley poles made and lost contact with the overhead wires). This need to protect the site from radio interference means that the Observatory still has a great deal of control over planning applications in the local area.

Manchester trams caused Lovell to move his research to Cheshire

The story continued with the massively overspent construction of what would become known as the Lovell space telescope, using recycled gun turrets from a battleship as motors to turn the dish, and that telescope’s role in the space race of the 1960s, tracking Soviet launches and relaying Apollo mission communications signals.

Mike finished by describing the complications of managing the many telescopes on site today, including the difficulties of repairing panelling on a heritage-protected telescope 50 metres off the ground.

After a break to explore the grounds and visitor centre, we were treated to a lecture on the work and discoveries that the Observatory has contributed to over the last 50 years, including pulsars, the expansion of the universe, and the latest images of the Sagittarius A black hole at the centre of the galaxy.

Then it was back onto the bus for the trip back to campus, after a fascinating day out. Where to next year? Suggestions to technical.excellence@manchester.ac.uk please!

How the Modelmaking Workshop participated in the Venice Architecture Biennale

Scott Miller, B.15 Modelmaking Workshop Technician

A lesser known part of the School of Environment, Education and Development is the School of Architecture which, through a joint agreement with Manchester Metropolitan University forms the Manchester School of Architecture. Students, Enrolled at both Institutes study Architecture from between 3 and 5 years of study which covers a wide range of disciplines any of which graduates can choose to pursue.

One of the longest standing departments within the school, the B.15 Modelmaking Workshop at UoM can be found in the basement of Humanities Bridgeford Street. The staff comprises Senior Technician James Backhouse, Technician Scott Miller and the recent addition of Technical Assistant Saul Parker-Backhouse. In late 2017 the school decided to make its mark at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, the world leader in architectural, art and design exhibitions. Rather than take the traditional approach of focussing on displaying resolved projects, our focus was much more anthropological, analysing our own practice and why the process of making models in design has an enduring appeal to our students and graduates.

In an increasingly fast paced design world, students face constant pressure to find solutions where the best way forward is left to their own findings. The idea of successful design having to employ the use of ‘cutting edge’ or forward thinking technology dominates with the majority of new starters. This often leads to our students to struggle to grasp why they have been asked to make a model in the first place. For us, the product is secondary to the learning that takes place through making.

We felt it our job to break down the hype and explore why the act of modelmaking has continued for many hundreds of years of change. Presenting this to both seasoned and future design enthusiasts would allow us to provoke thought and conversation on the subject and with any luck, a fresh perspective on design thinking that never rules out the old fashioned when it is the most efficient solution for the task at hand.

This concept manifested itself as the short film titled WHAT WE DO HERE which premiered in Venice last June. Following the launch event it was then resident at the European Cultural Centre on the Grand Canal for five months where it was seen by tens of thousands of people visiting the city. It has since been screened at Odeon Great Northern in Manchester and has won two awards from the Independent Shorts Film festival in Los Angeles before appearing as part of Modernist Week in Palm Springs.

There have also been a number of further screenings and discussions locally for other institutions, architectural and engineering practices with more on the horizon elsewhere in the UK. The project has been a great opportunity for us to reflect about the reasons behind our craft and with 2020 making 50 years of our workshop, we hope to continue to practice the various aspects of practical modelmaking for many years to come. B.15 workshop can be found on Twitter and Instagram @b15workshop and further information can be found on their blog at www.manchester.ac.uk/b15workshop

General Assembly – what is it and who is on it?

By Sandra Taylor

In September 2018 I was elected onto the University’s General Assembly as there were a few vacancies. I wanted to do this because I felt that the voice of technical staff should be contributing to the conversation at the university level. And I wanted to learn more about how the university works overall and what the priorities and travel of direction are.

I went to my first meeting in January and the next meeting will be on 26th June this year. There is a set agenda but there is also an opportunity to submit questions for consideration. My first meeting covered proposed changes to the Assembly make up and structure. There was some discussion about the best way for Assembly members to get involved.

There was a very full annual report on the last year.

We had a talk on the annual financial statement and a presentation from the Director of Estates and Facilities on North Campus development and opportunities for Graphene.

I also raised the point that it would be nice if our category of staff representation were named something a bit more inspiring than “other” so any suggestions for a new category name for staff who are not academic or academic related, please let me know.

And if anyone has questions that they would like me to raise at the next meeting please email me sandra.taylor@manchester.ac.uk  or phone 0161 306 5131.

Technical Staff Profile: Lauryn McLoughlin

Describe your work area and its importance. 

I am a Research technician working with the soil ecology lab and N8 Agrofood’s mobile trace gas and stable isotope tracking laboratory (GasLab) which generates data on greenhouse gas emissions and dynamics in relation to grassland management practices. The main part of my job is Outreach which is important to make science accessible to everyone. I’m developing knowledge exchange activities which are suitable for everyone to really widen the participation of science communication.

On a typical day, what do you spend most of your time on? 

I spend a lot of my day developing knowledge exchange activities reading, researching and preparing for the next event or workshop.  This tends to involve a lot of playing games which is fun!

Describe your career path to date, including highs and lows.

My career path definitely hasn’t been linear… I didn’t go to university until my mid 20’s but by that time I really know what I wanted to do. I studied Geography and then completed an Environmental Management MSc. I wrote my thesis on urban soil and community growing projects and then you could say I was hooked on soil.

What drives you?

In my job now I really get to educate people on things that I care about. When I was younger I thought being a scientist was out of reach I want to change that. Especially for girls!

Tell us a funny story, work-related or not:

Recently at an event I was talking to some children about sustainable farming and we were discussing if it would be better to have more or less animals on the farm to which they replied “more because you get more meat!”. I then explained the implications of having more animals and it would in fact be better to have less and to cut down on meat (my table was all about sustainability) their mother pulled them away from my table and told them not to listen to me because I was brainwashing them! Ooops!

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

Not really career advice so much as unrivalled support from my Mum she always convinces me I can do anything no matter how out of reach it seems to me.

Technical Staff Profile: Sam Davies

Describe your work area and its importance. 

The University of Manchester’s Geography labs provide a wide selection of learning resources and equipment for university students and research staff. The students who are studying for their geography degrees are able to access top-of-the-range laboratory equipment to carry out experimental and research-based work to contribute towards their learning experience.

On a typical day, what do you spend most of your time on? 

There are no typical days, really! One of the best things about working as an apprentice for The University of Manchester is that I often spend my days doing a variety of tasks – including calibrating and operating cutting-edge laboratory equipment, learning laboratory procedures for sample preparation/analysis and also maintaining the labs/equipment to a high standard; all the while taking care to follow health & safety procedures.

Describe your career path to date, including highs and lows.

I was employed by The University of Manchester on September 11 2018 as a Specialist Laboratory Technician Apprentice. Every few months I ‘rotate’ to a different area of the Science & Engineering Faculty; mostly in laboratory environments. I also attend Trafford College once a week to work towards a Level 3 Extended BTEC in Applied Science, and then I have the option to work towards a HNC/apprenticeship degree. This allows me to experience a variety of laboratories relating to different scientific subjects, i.e. chemistry and geography. I am also learning relevant scientific theory that relates to my job which is an advantage. I am about halfway through my first year and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time as an apprentice at the university. I am achieving my target grades (distinction) at college and I have received praise from my peers/colleagues and management.

What drives you?

I am driven by my environment; being surrounded by academics and compelling individuals who make working at the university so enriching. I am motivated by my peers/colleagues to achieve my goal of becoming a senior technician when I have gained enough experience after completing the apprenticeship.

Tell us a funny story, work-related or not:

When I was about 10, some friends and I were digging a small hole in the ground near a bush-craft den we had made – a man passed by and told us to stop digging the hole because a bird might fall into it.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

The best career advice I’ve ever received came from my A-level Film Studies teacher, Benjamin Hassouna-Smith. He told me that it was important to focus on getting a job that I would enjoy, rather than one that would just pay well. He said that job satisfaction is the most important thing when it comes to choosing/getting a career so that you don’t become unhappy later on in life.

Technician’s excellent lab book secures patent application

A technician working in the MIB building was recently rewarded by the University’s Thank You scheme for the excellence of her record-keeping, and its impact on a patent application.  Anu Balasundaram works for Professor Clare Mills’ Molecular Allergology group, preparing and analysing ‘challenge meals’ for their commercial partner, Reacta Biotech.  Challenge meals are foods containing precise quantities of a known food allergen, e.g. peanut protein, or a placebo.  When administered to people with food allergies in a double blind placebo-controlled food challenge under medical supervision, they can be used to give an accurate food allergy diagnosis.

Reacta Biotech are in the process of applying for a patent in this area and leaned heavily on Anu’s lab book to provide evidence to support the application.  Dr. Martin Wickham, Reacta’s Commercialisation Manager wrote that Anu’s lab book record “provided us with exactly the evidence required, and therefore made my job of progressing the patent, really easy.”  He went on to say “I genuinely do not know what we would have done without the laboratory records” and praised their clarity and the speed with which she was able to produce them.

Anu’s supervisor, Professor Clare Mills, said “A good lab book is vital for substantiating data and conclusions made in papers, and also in identifying and protecting intellectual property…  Her exemplary lab book, with experiments clearly described, dated and signed off, has been essential in providing documentary evidence to the patent examiner.”

As part of its commitment to recognising its staff’s achievements, the University rewarded Anu with some gift vouchers under its Thank You Scheme.  Her line manager, Geoff Blunt, said “It’s so great to see Anu’s hard work and attention to detail being acknowledged and celebrated; it shows her work has real impact and she performs a vital role for the University and its partners.”

For more information on the University’s Thank You Scheme, and how you can request a card or present for a member of staff who should be acknowledged, please click here.

May Coffee Morning and new Technical Tours

The TEaM quarterly coffee morning was on 29th May and was well-attended.  Perkin Elmer demonstrated FTIR and ICP spectrometers and attendees were able to find out about upcoming Technical Tours.  More information on these shortly but they will include:

  • Chemistry’s electronics team
  • The Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama
  • A repeat of the Biological Facility tours from last year

January Coffee & Networking Event

On 17th January, TEaM held one of its quarterly coffee & networking events, this time with a stall from the School of Geography, following on from feedback that these events could be improved by adding some technical focus.

Geography showcased some of their X-ray diffraction equipment and provided a talking point.  The event was very popular, in fact the coffee ran out, so please remember to book on the eventbrite if you are coming, so we can make sure there’s enough next time!