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’.

Editorial – Technical Education Reforms

What are “T-Levels”? By Peter Yates, Technical Operations Manager

In their Spring budget, the Treasury announced significant extra funding for technical education, with the annual figure available rising to around £500m by the year 2022, however the early steps on the road to this decision were taken back in November 2015. At that time Nick Boles MP, on behalf of the secretaries of State for Education and for Business, Innovation and Skills, commissioned an independent panel to conduct a review of technical education, to be led by Lord Sainsbury. The panel members were asked to consider best practice both in this country and internationally and then advise ministers on measures to improve the current system in England. The panel’s report and the Government’s ‘Post-16 Skills plan’ were both published in July 2016. The government plan accepted “unequivocally where possible within existing budgets”, all 34 recommendations of the Sainsbury review and described itself as “the most ambitious post-16 education reforms since the introduction of A-Levels 70 years ago”.

Lord Sainsbury’s report highlighted significant problems with the existing system and in particular its complexity – there are currently around 13,000 technical education qualifications available to 16–18 year olds. The report calls for the creation of two distinct pathways, academic or technical, with the technical pathway based on a framework of 15 routes encompassing all technical education at levels 2–5. The recommendation for a ‘bridging provision’ will allow some flexibility for those wishing to move between academic and technical pathways. The routes will group together related occupations and each occupation, or cluster of occupations, will have a single technical qualification – dubbed by the media as ‘T-Levels’.  The full programme for a route will consist of a technical qualification, English and maths, digital skills and a significant work placement, together with any sector-specific learning deemed essential by the employers. Whilst Lord Sainsbury concedes that it will be necessary for the Government to design the overall national system, he categorically states that “employer-designed standards must be placed at its heart to ensure it works in the market place”. Awarding bodies, or consortia of awarding bodies, will follow a bidding process to be granted the licence to deliver each of these qualifications.

What are the 15 routes?

Agriculture, Environmental and Animal CareHair and Beauty
Business and AdministrativeHealth and Science
Catering and HospitalityLegal, Finance and Accounting
Childcare and EducationProtective Services*
ConstructionSales, Marketing and Procurement*
Creative and DesignSocial Care*
DigitalTransport and Logistics*
Engineering and Manufacturing

(*Routes primarily delivered through apprenticeship)

What is the timescale for the introduction of T-Levels?

By April 2018, it is proposed that the Institute for Apprenticeships, which launches this month, will expand its remit to cover all technical education, overseeing the developmental work for the new training routes and being renamed: Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. In October 2018, procurement and bidding begins to find the single awarding bodies for the new technical qualifications. Technical qualifications for two ‘pathfinder’ routes will be approved in February 2019, with first teaching of these routes due to start in September 2019. The first certificates will be issued in September 2021, with all 15 routes phased in and available during the period September 2020 – September 2022.
Lord Sainsbury’s report summary states: “By 2020, the UK is set to fall to 28th out of 33 OECD countries in terms of developing intermediate skills and the size of the post-secondary technical education sector in England is extremely small by international standards. This adversely affects our productivity, where we lag behind competitors like Germany and France by as much as 36 percentage points”. It seems the Government hopes that the proposed technical education routes will eventually achieve parity of esteem with the well-defined academic pathways, attracting students who will eventually begin to fill the looming technical skills gap.

The full text of the Sainsbury report can be found at:

The Governments ‘Post-16 Skills plan’ can be found at:

TEaM member presents work at IAT National Congress

The past decade has seen an increasing trend of Zebrafish usage in biomedical research leading to increased pressure on animal technicians to breed them efficiently and improve juvenile survival rates. With this end in mind, David Mortell, an aquatics technician at BSF, conducted a Zebra Fish feeding trial involving 420 fish over 2 months. David published his work as a poster which he then went on to present at the Institute of Animal Technology (IAT) national congress in March 2017.

David explains his work:

The zebrafish is important in studying developmental origins of health and disease. Their embryos are transparent and develop outside the body, allowing simple study of the developing embryo. Zebrafish research provides a unique visual approach to under-standing the developmental defects in adult diseases and age-related abnormalities, such as cardiovascular diseases. Fish are the third most commonly used protected species in research after mice and rats.

Like the mouse, the zebrafish is suitable for genetic analysis, and is a valuable tool for creating genetic models of human diseases. Although the zebrafish genome is only half the length of the human genome, the genetic structure is remarkably similar. Genes responsible for human diseases often have equivalents in the zebrafish.

The past decade has seen an increasing trend of Zebrafish usage in biomedical research leading to increased pressure on animal technicians to breed them efficiently and improve juvenile survival rates. With this end in mind, David Mortell, an aquatics technician at the Biological Services Facility (BSF), has conducted a Zebra Fish feeding trial involving 420 fish over 2 months. The purpose of this trial was to confirm an optimal feeding regime that resulted in the best embryo survival rates. Six different feeding regimes were examined involving various combinations of powder food, live brine shrimp and live rotifer.

The optimal feeding regime resulted in survival rates of 98.6% which were previously as low as 65%. This increased embryo survival rate means that less fish need to be bred which is in keeping with the 3Rs of animal technology, Replacement/Reduction/Refinement. David published his work as a poster which he then went on to present at the Institute of Animal Technology (IAT) national congress in March 2017, the ideal place to share ideas with fellow technicians from around the country. This trial highlights how technical practices can be improved and how technicians are central to the advancement and refinement of biomedical as well as all other research.

PSS Distinguished Achievement Awards 2017 – Anthony Steel

Faculties and all individual members of staff are invited annually to nominate colleagues for a Professional Support Services, Library and Cultural Institutions’ Distinguished Achievement Award.

One of 2017’s runners-up is Anthony Steel, FBMH.  Congratulations!

Here is an excerpt from Mrs Hayley Monk’s interview on her winning nominee.

What qualities do you think merit a distinguished achievement award?

I think a Distinguished Achievement Award should represent a sustained and demonstrable dedication to the PSS core values, especially teamwork and a respectful working environment.  For an individual nominee I think strengths as a team player are essential and someone who continually looks at ways to help and actively contributes to support others to keep motivation and performance high.

What made you nominate Anthony?

Anthony – like lots of people – was affected by the restructure of 2016 but was in the frustrating position of still being in a long-term acting up role at the time that the restructure came into force.  He was, therefore, ineligible to receive an aspirational interview for an equivalent grade position in the new technical structure yet had other technical staff ‘aspiring’ to the role that he was largely already fulfilling.  Anthony dealt with this in a true altruistic fashion, by being open with his knowledge and skills and helping anyone who approached him for advice ahead of their own aspirational interview.  He was extremely professional and behaved as a real team player and since subsequently being successfully employed into his current Technical Manager position he has brought about some very effective changes in a relatively short timeframe.  Motivation in his team has never been higher.

Why do you think it’s important to have these awards?

It’s extremely important to recognise what we do well and to send out a positive message about the real strengths of the University’s Professional Support Staff workforce.  It’s wonderful to be able to celebrate this success each year by recognising those individuals and teams who have really gone above and beyond in their efforts and dedication to their role.

What impact does Anthony have on your team?

Quite simply Anthony is extremely good at what he does but because he is so natural in his approach, he probably doesn’t realise it himself half the time!  He provides an extremely high level of customer service to his academic colleagues by taking the time to listen to their requirements and is not afraid to make suggestions offer feedback to their practical classes.  As a manager he is very supportive of his team and often puts their needs ahead of his own in order to motivation high and deliver a First Class service to every student who passes through his labs.

Here are a few words from Anthony.

Could you provide a very brief history of your career here at Manchester?

I started at the university in 1997 as a Grade A (1) Term Time only Technical Assistant in the School of Biological Sciences Teaching Labs. I arrived with no real science background, a handful of GCSE’s and no particular plans for a future career.
As new technology appeared in the lab, the need for a qualified science/IT technician broadened my horizons. I attended night school at Openshaw College and day release at MMU where I gained both a HNC in Applied Biology and a City and Guilds qualification in IT Maintenance and Repair. Over the years I have worked in teaching I have seen, and been part of, the development of the department where we now have more than 2000 science students using the labs for the practical part of their degree course. This is stark contrast to the 60 science students that we had when I started 20 years ago!

What does receiving the distinguished achievement award mean to you?

Receiving the distinguished achievement award has been important to me because it has recognised not only my contribution to the teaching labs over the last 20 years but the contribution that is made by all the teaching staff day in day out. The success of the Stopford Undergraduate Teaching Labs is a real team effort and I feel thrilled that we have been rewarded with this award.

What would you say is your greatest work achievement to date?

I would say that my greatest achievement has been my whole career progression. As a 19 year old lad with no real idea about what I wanted to do with my future, I have worked through every grade available in the Teaching Labs from Grade 1 to Grade 6. I have been fortunate enough to be nurtured in a similar way to our Apprentices and through my involvement with the Apprenticeship programme I   can now give back and help nurture others. One could also argue my greatest work achievement was meeting my wife!

PSS Distinguished Achievement Awards 2017 – Neil O’Hara

Faculties and all individual members of staff are invited annually to nominate colleagues for a Professional Support Services, Library and Cultural Institutions’ Distinguished Achievement Award.

One of 2017’s runners-up is Neil O’Hara, FBMH.  Congratulations!

Here is an excerpt from Doctor Elena Bichenkova’s interview on her winning nominee.

What do you think are the qualities that make for a successful technician in your research group?

The qualities that make for a successful technician in any research group include excellent professional performance and high level of competence in every aspect of professional activity, as well as the ability to transform the working environment by providing a safe, well-functioning and highly efficient professional setting for academics, researchers and students to allow them achieving outstanding organisational benefits.

What qualities do you think merit a Distinguished Achievement Award?

From the Guidance on the Profession Support Services, Library and Cultural Institutions’ Awards: ‘Specifically, nominations should evidence how the individuals or teams have significantly and tangibly contributed to maintaining a positive, open and respectful working environment where people work cooperatively together, have excelled at breaking down boundaries and communicating fully to achieve outstanding organisational benefits’.

What made you nominate Neil?

My nomination of Neil for a Distinguished Achievement Award was based on three main criteria:
(i)    Outstanding Professional Performance
From the very beginning of his work in the Division, Neil became known as an exceptionally skilled, knowledgeable and proactive technician, who was recognized for his outstanding professional abilities not only by his PSS colleagues, but also by research & academic staff and postgraduate research students. Neil is one of the most motivated, enthusiastic and hard-working technicians, with a high level of commitments and wiliness to support the most vital areas of research activity within the Division/School/Faculty. He simply does not have any fear or barriers for learning any analytical techniques or experimental methods since he possesses a natural ability and desire for learning by being exposed to new exciting challenges.
(ii)    Excellence in Maintaining Safe Working Environment
Neil is responsible for carrying out the maintenance of the NMR instrumentation in the Division is an intellectually demanding, technically challenging and potentially dangerous task, and he does it in a safe, professional and responsible manner. Neil is responsible for providing both safety and professional training for every single new NMR user, including PhD student and research staff, to ensure that they can operate instruments knowledgably, efficiently and safely at all times.
(iii)    Evidence of Excellence in Providing Training
From personal observations and from informal communications with the PhD students and researchers, it is evident that Neil provides an excellent training and experience on the basis of quality of information, approachability and willingness to help. In every instance Neil behaves in a professional, committed and patient manner, using a wise and tolerant approach while helping his younger colleagues to resolve any difficult situation (either  technical or scientific). He always takes time to explore any difficult issues with PhD students, breaking the complicated concepts down to the fundamentals until they grasped the underlying science or technical issues.

Why do you think it is appropriate to have these awards?

It is very important to have these awards because it is very easy to spot domains that need improvement and miss areas which are running perfectly. The Distinguished Achievement Awards allow us to recognise this and celebrate the work that has been carried out superbly and show that all these invaluable efforts are appreciated and recognised by staff and the University.

Here are a few words from Neil.

Could you provide a very brief history of your career here at Manchester i.e., where & when did you start, where have you been since starting and where & what are you doing now?

After working for 10 years in a number of industrial roles I started my career with the University of Manchester. In Jan 2010 I started working within the QC group at the WMIC. In Jan 2014 I moved to my current role of Instrument technician here at the Division of Pharmacy and Optometry working for Prof Anna Nicolaou’s group and Dr Elena Bichenkova. My current role uses a lot of my past experiences of using numerous instrumentation techniques to help maintain the equipment and to train staff and students in its use.

What does the achievement award mean to you?

It was a bit of surprise to be nominated for the award. I think I am an approachable person and will always try to help out others where I can around the building, I just see that as part and parcel of the role I perform here at the university. It’s nice that my colleagues felt that I deserved recognition and took the time to write such nice things on the nomination form, it means a lot to me so I would like to thank them for that.

What would you say is your greatest achievement since starting at the University & what are your plans for the future?

Each day I have the usual  little wins, whether it  fixing a problem with an instrument or finding a new way to solve a problem. I take each of these wins as a mini-achievement.
Since starting at the University a lot of things have changed in my life, I now have two little ones, Amy who is 5 and Callum who is 1. They keep me on my toes and I don’t think anything could top them as my greatest achievement (although there are days!!).
Future plans are just to keep on doing what I am doing, I get to take on new challenges as my role evolves to new things and I get to meet and work with lots of great staff and students.