UoM Technician Talk, Episode 2

Here is our second TEaM TechTalk video, hosted by Mike Hughes, Chemistry Teaching Labs Manager. In this episode he interviews Gwen Riley Jones, who manages Special Collections Imaging at John Rylands Library. Together with James Duff, she hosted one of our Workplace Tours last year which was really enjoyed by staff who attended. The Peterloo Massacre exhibition which was running at that time in John Rylands Library was also excellent. Mike caught up with Gwen to see how things have been going during the pandemic. There’s also a very special extra guest to start the video, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, with a message for the technical community. We hope you enjoy this episode, and more are to follow!

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!

Geography Laboratories Team win 2019 Distinguished Achievement Award

L-R: Sam Davies, Dr. Thomas Bishop, John Moore, Dame Nancy Rothwell, Martin Kay, Jonathan Yarwood, Patrick Hackett

For both the individual and team awards the judges were looking for outstanding performance and, more specifically, evidence of 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. Teams also had to demonstrate that they have a shared ethos which has led to either a significant one-off achievement or to sustained high performance

Small Team: Geography Laboratory Team, School of Environment, Education and Development, FHUMS Team members: John Moore, Jonathan Yarwood, Thomas Bishop, Martin Kay The Geography Laboratory Team is based in the School of Environment, Education and Development.

This team of four is described as being extremely enthusiastic and experienced. The aim of the team is always to give the best support possible to students, academics and researchers wishing to use the laboratories.

Members always strive to go the ‘extra mile’ in all aspects of their work. Their commitment and dedication has ensured that the laboratories have thrived in recent years and represent a worldclass facility. They have worked together to deliver the highest standards in both teaching and research and this has been recognised in outstanding student feedback and also has contributed to the production of world-leading research outputs.

In addition to this success, the team has also been very active in wider University initiatives, especially in sustainability and outreach activities to local schools.

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.

How will LabCup impact on Technical Staff?

Editorial by Geoff Blunt

If you’re a member of staff who works with chemicals, the chances are you’ve already been introduced to LabCup, or you will be over the next year.  LabCup is an online software package aimed primarily at chemical inventory management. The University has decided to implement it across the entire institution by 2020, with no exceptions.  The Faculty of Science and Engineering have already rolled it out to approximately 2/3 of Schools and Research Institutes, and the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health will begin this process later on this year.

For anyone who hasn’t already encountered it, LabCup performs a variety of functions, but at its most basic it’s a database containing information about the chemicals in your lab, where they are stored, and the safety data related to them.  This is not really an innovation; many labs have stored this information in a variety of ways including written lists, Excel spreadsheets and other lab management software like Quartzy.  So what makes LabCup worth the University investing in so totally?

Perhaps the biggest reason to invest in chemical inventory software is the increasing need for the University to keep track of radio-chemicals, controlled drugs, chemical weapons and their precursor materials.  Every year groups are asked to check their labs for chemicals set out in the various schedules in order that these can be reported to central agencies acting on behalf of government.  This exercise has been described as cumbersome and prone to errors. Following the implementation of LabCup, this should become a simple exercise of interrogating the database to obtain an automatically-generated report. The need to contact each group individually and collate numerous sporadic responses is gone.  In an emergency situation, the database can be used to alert fire crews to the location of hazardous chemicals and other substances they may need to avoid, or at least be aware of, when tackling a blaze.

One of the major advantages for LabCup is that everyone will be required to use it.  That doesn’t in itself sound so great, but it does mean that there will be support for it centrally, and that labs that share resources will be using the same systems.  The scale of the University’s commitment to LabCup also means that the company will customise the software to increasingly integrate with our other IT systems over time, including potentially Oracle in due course.  Limited information about chemicals will be visible to other people within the same Faculty, so if you get to the end of your experiment and find that the undergraduate student has used up the chemical you need, you should be able to track some down and borrow it from a neighbouring lab.  Similarly, if you only need a small amount of a chemical for a “look-and-see” experiment, there should be no need to buy an entire bottle, which you may never need again; you could borrow some off another group instead.

Edinburgh University Chemistry department have reported a 25% saving in chemical purchases and disposals following the implementation of a similar system, so the incentive for cost-conscious groups to participate is clear.

Another reason for choosing LabCup was the clever features such as image and barcode recognition, which streamline the boring data-entry process.  As well as having a web interface, there are apps for Apple and soon Android devices which are mobile and can readily be taken into labs to access chemicals in situ.  When you enter a chemical onto the system, you have the option of simply taking a photo of the bottle’s label; in a lot of cases, LabCup will identify the chemical name, manufacturer and product number and other critical information without you having to enter the data by hand.  Furthermore, it will then search an online database and download the safety data sheet for the chemical and add it to the database automatically.  There are some caveats to this: the label has to be in a good state, the bottle has to have been bought relatively recently (and from a mainstream manufacturer), but when it does work, it is a big time-saver.  If you already had an inventory spreadsheet or other digital format, these can be uploaded to save you repeating work you’ve already done.  As your inventory begins to grow on the database, it can also offer you helpful advice about incompatible chemicals being stored in the same location, and for some potentially dangerous chemicals it will even, for  example, suggest a short expiry date to reduce the risk of crystallisation.

While the software involved is very clever, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a lot of work to set up initially, and then a fair amount of maintenance is required to update the inventory as new chemicals are bought and old ones used up. Since technical staff are often called on for complex, long-duration tasks, there’s a high chance that PIs will seek to delegate this to them.  So how can we manage this?  Here are three approaches:

Be clear about the responsibility – these chemicals are the responsibility of the person whose money paid for them, usually the PI or line manager, and they will be accountable if mistakes are made.  So if you’re asked to take this on, be specific about the amount of resources you will need (time out of your other duties, participation from other lab members, or both), and make sure these are in place before agreeing to start the process.

Don’t be the single point of failure – this system will only work if it’s kept up-to-date.  If you’re the only person maintaining the database for your group, what will happen when you are away?  Your PI or line manager will need to make provision for this.

Exploit the benefits of the system – fed up of being constantly asked where chemicals are?  Or how to find chemical safety data for new risk assessments?  Point lab members to LabCup, they should be able to search out the location of any chemical and its safety data from any computer.

It will be interesting to see, as the system becomes embedded in the University, whether LabCup use starts to crop up in job descriptions – and if it does, whether it’s primarily in the technical roles.  We are often reminded, after all, that Health and Safety is everyone’s responsibility!