Tours of the Firs Botanical Grounds

The Firs Botanical Grounds are tucked away between Owens Park and the Armitage Sports Centre in Fallowfield, on land that previously formed part of Joseph Whitworth’s estate – the house of the estate is now known as Chancellors, but Whitworth had a long brick firing range on the grounds, and part of this was converted into greenhouses.  Further greenhouses have since been built on the site, as well as a specialist section for mosses and ferns.

The two tours were led by David Grantham, who has worked as the technician and effective manager of the site since 2009.  It was amazing how many plants from different parts of the world could be made to grow and even fruit using relatively modest amounts of heat and humidity.  A range of different experiments were in progress, as well as mass plant propagation for use both in experiments on main campus and for outreach projects elsewhere.

Through a programme of plant exchange with other institutions and with the various volunteer groups that help maintain the Firs,  the range of plants housed there has been increased over the years.  Banana plants, ginger, tea and coffee grew next door to giant (and toxic) euphorbia cacti and delicate Norfolk Island pines.

The greenhouses themselves are very vulnerable to both the weather and damage from the plants growing up inside, so it is a constant battle to keep the plants alive, but cut them back and contain their growth, particularly the cacti which grow much faster than in their arid native conditions.

Alongside all of the larger plants, David is also experimenting with propagating large quantities of seedum for potential use as green roofing material, and looks after a number of Venus fly-trap plants, which will be sent off to be prodded and poked by schoolchildren as part of the University’s Widening Participation programme.

Manchester Institute of Biotechnology tours

  In early June, Sandra Taylor led three tours of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, on Sackville Street.  MIB is a largely research driven environment with mostly Masters or Postgrad level students and research staff. There is a small core of technical staff underpinning the work and the running of the building. The groups are by design multidisciplinary and have a range of core facilities to support their research themes: Industrial Biotechnology, Biomedical and Healthcare (such as drug production), Biofuels and Synthetic Biology.

Tour-goers were shown a selection of the Bionanotechnology, Biophysics, EPR, Mass spectrometry, NMR, Protein expression, Protein structure and Transcriptomics core facilities, each of which is administered by their own Experimental Officer.  Further detailed information on these core facilities can be found here.

While the tours were well-attended, we did have some last-minute cancellations – please hold back from booking if you’re not sure you can make it as it prevents other people from going on the tours.

Technical Staff Profile – Karen Fry

Karen Fry
Master Technician
Biological Services Facility, Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health

Describe your work area and its importance.
Working with animals used in the field of medical research is an important and valued job.   Caring for animals used in medical research means you are also contributing to helping find treatments for debilitating human diseases and conditions.  Many people’s lives have been saved or just made so much better using the information gained from this type of work.  You only have to look at the treatments discovered using animal research and how these treatments have improved the lives of men, women & children to know that it’s important.  The animals in our care are looked after with compassion and respect, and we as a University are constantly doing everything we can to ethically reduce the number of animals we use.  Whenever possible, animals within our care are replaced to use other non-animal methods to gain the same results.  When replacement isn’t possible and animals are used we are constantly looking for ways to refine the work to use the least number of animals possible.

On a typical day, what do you spend most of your time on?
My typical day at work consists of the general husbandry and care of rodents.  This mainly involves the health checking, cleaning and feeding of mice.  I have many other duties such as staff supervision, ordering of supplies, contact with researchers and the cleaning and general upkeep of our SPF (Specified Pathogen Free) animal unit.  There are also many other areas to my job (too many to mention) and this variation is one of the reasons that I love it so much.

Describe your career path to date, including highs and lows.
I started in retail work which suited my family situation at the time.  As soon as the children were older I began to pursue my dream of working with animals.  I studied for a BTEC National Diploma in Animal Care alongside working part-time.  After completing the course in 2004 I got the trainee animal technician job at the University but carried on studying whilst working.  I did several Open University courses (all biology based) and some work defined courses (1 year/2 year) all whilst working full-time.  Finally I completed level 5 & all but one module on level 6 animal technology degree level course.  I stopped studying late 2016.
High: Completing all of my study work whilst working full-time and raising a family, and of course my recent upgrade.
Low: Not being able to speak about my job openly.  I am proud of what I do and it would be wonderful to speak about it without fear of reprisals. Close friends and family know what I do but I’m not sure they fully understand what’s involved.

What drives you?
Firstly working with animals.  I have always had a life-long love of animals.  Being paid for doing what you love is the best motivation in the world.   This Job is challenging and different everyday which is why I love it. I know that I am making a huge difference and I am helping towards medically treating some terrible human illnesses.  Now that I have been upgraded I have a new level of responsibility, which adds a new interesting dimension to my job.  I work with an excellent hard-working team which enables the animal unit to run as efficiently and ethically as possible.  I am lucky enough to work in a pleasant work environment which makes going to work every day a pleasure.

Tell us a funny story, work-related or not:
On the day of my very first interview for the trainee position at the University I was asked to come to the Stopford Building reception and ask for Mr Terry Priest.  I was so nervous that I told the receptionist that I had an interview scheduled with Terry Waite!  I quickly corrected myself and I think (hope!) that I got away with it.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?
I don’t recall being given any specific career advice.  The best career advice I could give is that it’s never too late to train for something you’ve always wanted to do.  I came into this type of work quite late because of family commitments, but have never regretted it.  Yes it was a struggle sometimes, but I’m glad I did it.  You spend too much time at work to be doing something that doesn’t make you happy.  If you’re unhappy with your present role, retrain.  You’ll be so glad you did.

Technical Staff Profile – Thomas Bishop

Thomas Bishop
Teaching and Research Technician
Geography Laboratories, School of Environment, Education and Development

Describe your work area and its importance.
I work in the geography laboratories. We cater for students on both taught and research programmes, as well as supporting research staff. I specialise in methods that allow workers to reconstruct past climate conditions from clues left in sediments like peat bogs and lakes, but I’ll turn my hand to whatever our lab users are working on.

On a typical day, what do you spend most of your time on?
I usually start the day by preparing analytical equipment that I or a laboratory user will be needing that day. I might begin preparing or analysing samples, or if there is a class in the laboratory I’ll set their equipment out and join the class to help out. Occasionally I’ll prepare or receive equipment used for field-work, or prepare instructional materials associated with the laboratory equipment and teaching programme.

Describe your career path to date, including highs and lows.
I read for a degree in Geography in Manchester, and took the opportunity of research council funded doctoral study immediately after graduating. I worked for some years on the past 10,000 years of climate change in southernmost South America. Before entering academia I had worked as a technician in photographic processing, theatre and television, so a laboratory technician role suited me when I finished my postgraduate study. I worked at the University of Southampton for some as a field and laboratory technician in the Geography Department there, before moving to Manchester last year.

What drives you?
I enjoy the variety of roles I fulfil – specialist technical and analytical work, undergraduate teaching, field-work, and more. Even the research work is varied – sometimes I might work on environmental pollutants, in archaeological contexts, on archives of past climate change, or sand dune formation in Africa. I’ve travelled the world in my short career, working in cold Patagonia, the Alps and Iceland, to tropical Vanuatu and Cambodia, and much in-between. I’ve got involved in outreach work which has hugely advanced my ability to teach and communicate my work. I believe that universities should be models of good practice and excellence, both so we can excel in research and our students gain the most from their time at university. I’m always looking for ways to improve and advance what we offer.

Tell us a funny story, work-related or not:
Whilst rounding-up a large group of students for a field-trip, in my enthusiasm for the task I accidently encouraged a passing tourist into the waiting coach. It was only en-route did the confused visitor ask whether this bus would meet up with “the others” at the bottom of the mountain. We had to turn around and take her back. Worst still, in a desperate attempt to distract her from my mistake, I talked at length about the “interesting” geological and geographical features along the journey!

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?
I was told that in academia, moving around and being exposed to different ways of working, institutional cultures, and ideas is good for personal development. I’ve created opportunities to be seconded to several laboratories around the country and although I’m early in my career, these experiences have been hugely beneficial in quickly building my skillset.

Technical Staff Profile – Julia Cheung

Julia Cheung
Senior Safety Advisor
School of Materials, Faculty of Science & Engineering

Describe your work area and its importance.
The activities in my School vary a great deal: from high-tech biogels, polymer composites and thermomechanics, to traditional weaving and design fashion business.
My job is to help maintain the Health and Safety standard in all these areas.  Health, safety and wellbeing of all personnel are really important to the University. As well as the legal requirement, everyone should be able to go home at the end of the day without anything bad happening. When things go wrong, it often costs a lot of time and resources to rectify it.

On a typical day, what do you spend most of your time on?
The School is spread out between 7 buildings with ~1900 people. So I spend a lot of time advising or problem solving on activities across the sites.  Every single risk assessment that gets submitted is checked by me to ensure they are sufficient – that’s the less exciting paperwork!  My School is also moving to the new MECD building in 2020, so I’m helping to plan the building design and operational arrangements.

Describe your career path to date, including highs and lows.
After gaining my degree in Biology from Sheffield, I joined the University as an undergraduate teaching lab technician in the School of Biological Sciences in 2001. After 2 years I moved into research in the Faculty of Life Sciences. This was followed by a promotion into Research Assistant, in which I managed research projects and contributed to publications. During my time in research I contributed to multiple publications, the latest one was accepted in Nature Communications in December 2016, which was great news, considering I left the lab bench some time ago!  I also attended and gave talks at several international conferences. These were great experiences and very beneficial opportunities for someone in a technical role.
I worked in research labs for 12 years, until a period when I was placed under immense and unnecessary work pressure, causing a workplace injury making lab work very difficult. I’ve always wanted to work in labs and didn’t know what my next job could be; the uncertainty made it a very worrying time.  But, leaning on my scientific background, I was able to take a secondment with the Faculty Safety Team, allowing me to gain professional H&S qualifications and valuable experiences, ultimately leading to my current role as a Senior Safety Advisor in the School of Materials in 2015.

What drives you?
– My days are very varied and never boring
– Changing people’s perception through persuasion.  I love seeing baby-step changes that lead to big improvements
– My colleagues who are very supportive and fun to work with
– Staff and students who really appreciate my help

Tell us a funny story, work-related or not:
One of the buildings my School occupies is 15 storey high. I once found 2 PhD students on the rooftop, spray-painting metal samples they use in their research. There are no barriers on the rooftop, so it’s a sheer drop straight down to the ground if you’re not careful. Their excuse: it’s a well-ventilated area!

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?
– Take part in the Manchester Gold mentoring scheme!
– Ask for opportunities to try out new job roles, even if t’s just a few hours shadowing.
– Be proactive when applying for jobs, use the criteria in the job description as sub-headings to structure the application. This helps to show the relevant skills clearly and increase your chances of being selected.

Academic Perspective – Professor Colin Bailey

Professor Colin Bailey
Deputy President & Deputy Vice-Chancellor

The University of Manchester is dependent on the quality of the entire workforce it recruits across the organisation. Every member of staff is critical to the delivery of world-class teaching, research and knowledge transfer, and in addressing the ever-changing challenges we face.

Without the skill, knowledge and dedication of technical staff across the University it will not be possible to teach our students, push the boundaries of knowledge through our research or have an overall beneficial impact on society and the economy.

Our technical roles encompass all operational areas of the University.  Technical Excellence at Manchester has come into being with the mission to support this highly skilled, dedicated and adaptable workforce, as well as attracting new people into this rewarding career.

The University has a clear and firm commitment to support the technical workforce. For the University to be competitive nationally and internationally it must engage with the promotion, development and recognition of its technical workforce to ensure continued success and to retain its talent in this environment of rapid change.

Technical Excellence at Manchester is a networking opportunity specifically for all technical staff.  I encourage all technical members of staff at the University to connect through the network, to support each other and help shape the growing technical role within the University.  As someone who started their career as an apprentice, I am very pleased to be the Academic Technical Champion and fully support this important initiative.

Award for UoM’s Technical Apprenticeship Programme

The University has received an Apprenticeships 4 England Bronze award for its Technical Apprenticeship Programme.
The awards recognise outstanding examples of quality, best practice, innovation and excellence in apprenticeship delivery, and offer organisations the chance to be recognised and rewarded for their commitment, hard work, achievements and success in delivering apprenticeship programmes in England.

The Technical Apprenticeship Programme in Engineering Operations and Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities was created four years ago and helps the University manage future demand for skilled technical staff.

Colin Baines, Faculty Technical Resource Manager, said: “There is an amazing transformation in our apprentices as they progress.  Starting as fresh-faced inexperienced, shy individuals, we see confidence grow gradually as they learn both technical and social skills.”

Since the programme began in 2013, the University has recruited 35 apprentices; 22 of those are still in training and seven have secured full time permanent positions within the University.

Manchester Museum behind-the-scenes tour

On 23rd March 2017, members of TEaM had the opportunity to attend a behind the scenes tour of Manchester Museum.  The two sessions were hosted by Dean Whiteside, Buildings and Operations Manager.  Excitingly, the tour groups were able to see “back of house” at the museum, i.e. what the visitors do not get see.
Individuals saw many archived items, such as: spears, knives and ceremonial clothing; they also got to find out about preservation and restoration, the importance of pest control in the museum collections, display mounting to the actual logistics involved in obtaining  artefacts for the museum, such as the massive Easter Island statue and the reinforced floor!  They also got to see the workshop where all of the display plinths are made for all of the exhibitions.

Individuals also saw the special viewing area – where anyone can contact the museum to arrange to see a particular item of interest that may not necessarily be on public display.  This facility is very popular with historians, archaeologists, artists, book and film writers, to name but a few. The tour group also got the opportunity to meet members of the Entomology Department and the Restoration Department, who were busy preserving an Egyptian mask, (inset, left hand side).

Whitworth Art Gallery behind-the-scenes tour

The Whitworth Art Gallery has recently undergone a £15 million development programme seeing it double in size and embrace Whitworth Park; with the inclusion of the landscape gallery, learning studio and the café in the trees. On the morning of 24rd March 2017, Dean Whiteside, Buildings and Operations Manager, gave the opportunity to TEaM members to have access to an ‘exclusive’ behind the scenes tour of this wonderful transformation.


The Whitworth is a place of research and academic collaboration and home to an extensive and eclectic collection of art and design of international significance. Dean began by explaining that in response to targets set by the University and external funding bodies, the building was designed to cut energy consumption and CO2 emissions by 10%.  Air conditioning and active chilling has been removed from the stores and galleries and has been replaced with mechanical ventilation and a conservation heating approach to regulate relative humidity, making the building warm in the summer and cool in the winter. So if you visit, make sure you dress for the season! Next, we went on to learn about how the new exhibition galleries use a programmable track lighting to deliver monitored cumulative lighting exposure for the objects on display, while light sensitive works in the collection are protected by a flexible system of lourves, blinds and carefully placed brise soleil.


As we made our way through the building, Dean pointed out the various ‘operational’ features, designed to blend into the fabric of the building, such as the full height loading bay window, the lift and the quarantine area. Next we went on to see the workshops where the Gallery Technicians assemble all the display plinths for the exhibitions and collections, art works are framed and mounted and conservation work is undertaken.

The tour party also got to see one of the three new gardens maintained by the Landscape & Sustainability Technician and Art Garden volunteers. The Whitworth is the only UK gallery to employ a Landscape & Sustainability Technician and part of their remit is to ‘raise awareness of wildlife and nature, and to connect our visitors with the importance of green space in an urban environment’.