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

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  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!

Academic Perspective: Professor Ingrid Gouldsborough

Medical Education

School of Medicine, Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health

The University of Manchester boasts outstanding facilities for the teaching of anatomy.  Cadaveric dissection and use of anatomical specimens provide the main method of learning in the Anatomy Dissecting Room and the Manchester Surgical Skills Centre.  Each week over 1000 Medical, Dental and Anatomy Science students will benefit from studying in the dissecting room.  Alongside this, The Manchester Surgical Skills Centre hosts surgical training courses to ensure continuing education for Medical Professionals at all stages of their careers.

The teaching that is carried out in these facilities is only possible thanks to a team of highly motivated and skilled technical staff.   There is a high-turnover of classes, each of which demands a vast amount of resources and preparation.   The anatomy technical team ensures the smooth running of the classes and courses on a daily basis.

The technical staff are also responsible for preparation and care of the cadavers.  This is a task that many would find difficult to handle, however, the team approach this duty with compassion and sensitivity.  They treat the donated bodies of the deceased with dignity and respect.  The high quality of the specimens we use in our teaching reflects their diligence in the way that they handle and care for them.

As Professor of Anatomy I am honoured and proud to work with this team of dedicated technical staff.  Their commitment to their work ensures that our anatomy teaching facilities are first class.  This enhances the learning experience of thousands of present and future health professionals.

Technical Staff Profile: FBMH Assistant Team

Fitzroy Burth

Patrick Dunican

Daniel Gilliatt

Liam Mannion     

John Moran  

John Parfitt                     

Wayne Watson

Describe your work & its importance

We provide a professional service to maintain the running of the labs to progress research e.g., replacing dirty glassware, collecting and distributing autoclaved products, transporting waste and providing & removing equipment.

Describe a typical day

A typical day can consist of collecting lab waste e.g., contaminated waste, tip boxes, ice packs, replacing glassware, checking orders for solvents, dry ice & liquid nitrogen, collecting dirty lab coats for laundry and moving equipment from labs to other locations.

Describe your career paths to date

Our backgrounds are quite diverse. Between us we have previously worked as cleaners with House Services, a bar manager, a sound engineer, a railway engineer, a textile designer, as construction workers, a receptionist and as a stores technician.

What do you most enjoy about working as a team?

The opportunities to build self-confidence, to bring new ideas and suggestions to the table, being efficient, effective and economical, the friendly vibe, being able to talk to others and ask for help or advice when needed and working in and having to adapt to a diverse working environment.

Which aspect of the job do you most enjoy?

Probably working in a team & being able to meet & interact with new people from all walks of life, both staff & students, but also giving good customer service and customer satisfaction, being able to use ‘our’ own initiative to make decisions and being part of an evolving team and management. There’s also the physical challenge & keeping fit!!

Technical Staff Profile: David Marshall


Scientific Glass Department, School of Chemistry, Faculty of Science & Engineering

The Glassblowing workshop we have located in the chemistry building isn’t what most people’s idea of a glassblowing workshop might be. We don’t for example, make our own glass on site, we don’t pull glass either direct from a furnace like conventional glassblowers do.

Our workshop resembles more of an engineering workshop type environment , we have a varied selection of tools that we use to work with glass. We work with pre-formed glass tubing in different diameter’s , for larger diameter glass we have glass working lathes that we use to essentially turn the glass for us while we melt and shape the glass.

We also have bench mounted glassworking torches that we use for apparatus that can be manufactured on the bench.

We use a selection of carbon formers and paddles to shape and form the glass into specific shape’s , We use Carbon/ Graphite tools because they can withstand high temperature’s without sticking to the molten glass surface .  Carbon can be easily cut and shaped into specific shapes or profiles this also benefits us as we have to manufacture our own tools for specific jobs. Being able to make your own tools is an important part of being a scientific glassblower, while there are numerous standard techniques we use day to day, we have to be able to adapt and have the ability to create tools specific to one off jobs or specialist apparatus.

We also have cold working equipment in the workshop, a glass diamond cutting disc saw that we use for cold cutting of glass and a glass lapping wheel that is mainly used for creating a ground finished surface on flanges .

In terms of importance, the Glassblowing workshop is an incredibly important part of any Science based University.

The work we do is so varied and complex to cover here but perhaps the most an important factor to consider is that of time.

If you are 2/3rds of the way through doing a PhD for example and require a complicated and bespoke reaction system building then you simply do not have time to go to an outside private company to build it for you. Due to the complexities involved to certain research projects, its simply not a feasible as nearly 90% of the time things need to be tweaked or modified in some way . Therefore it is very important that we are able to work with face to face with people on specific projects. Another point to consider is that not every student knows the limits or limitations, or indeed what they actually need. So it’s important that we can work with them to build system that works for them specifically. Building bespoke apparatus can be very time consuming for both myself and the person who requires it. So it’s essential that they can have access to the service we provide.

Describe what a typical working day would involve

A typical working day starts at 7:30am. It is not easy to say what a typical day involves because the work we do is so varied, it is very unlikely that we have 2 days the same.

Of course we do have a general workload of standard lab apparatus that we manufacture and repair and we also build a lot of Schlenk  line vacuum systems as well as a sample sealing service.

Also part of my day involves dealing with enquires and responding to emails, calls etc.

What qualifications are required for becoming a Glassblower?

Generally a good standard of education in science based subjects, however its more important to have to have the right attitude in my opinion. It’s a long process and although a grounding in science is a good start, most of the work we do requires an ability to learn hand’s on. You cannot learn to become a glassblower in a classroom.

How long would it take to train an apprentice to becoming fully qualified in this field?

The standard apprenticeship term is 5 years. This has been the standard for many years through the British Society of Scientific Glassblowers.

Generally it takes 5 years to become competent and 10 years to reach the point where you are able to sit your master craftsman’s examination.

One unfortunate aspect of our profession is that there are no formal training opportunities available in the UK to train a Glassblower, so even if you wanted to learn to become a Scientific glassblower there simply isn’t any avenues for you to do this. I believe there is a training school in France and another in the US but as yet non in the UK. We are very much on the endangered species list.

What are the highs and lows of the job?

I always get satisfaction from the fact that I have produced something that could have at least helped in some way to real advances in sciences, whether that’s from an environmental perspective through waste water management, hydrogen fuel cell technology or to advances in cancer research. The list is endless. There are many high points to being in this field and its always great when you get feedback and appreciation from the people you work with on projects.

Low points, not many really. It can be frustrating at times when you have spent 2 hours working on a complex piece of apparatus only to have it crack on you at the last min but that’s is the nature of the material and the battle we as glassblowers have to deal with and overcome . Ive been glassblowing nearly 30 years and it still goes wrong from time to time.  You never stop learning in this field.

This is a niche area, and requires very specialist skills, what would you say to someone who might be interested in becoming a Glassblower?

I would say great! Unfortunately and sadly this unless one can persuade a private company to train them for 5 years with the hope of a position at the end of it is simply not available.

We at the British Society are trying to address these issues and have been for some time, the government are aware of the situation and the decline in our field but unless certain action is taken then I believe it’s only a matter of time before we as a Society disappear forever.

I have been approached by 2 people since taking up my post here 2 years ago (one a chemistry undergrad) absolutely desperate to become a glassblower, it’s a little disheartening to inform them that its not something we offer but perhaps we may in the future.

Technical Achievements

Well done Alison Thomlinson, from Division of Cell matrix Biology & Regenerative Medicine, SBS. She gave an oral presentation on “Polyacrylate Polymer Dressing Reduces Inflammatory Response In A Partial Thickness Burn Wound” at the British Burns Association conference (Swansea) last month.

Yvonne Duxbury, David Dennington, Colin Greensmith and their new member of staff Sarah Warburton gave blood at the blood donation centre Plymouth grove on the 11th May. They, Stu Marshall and Sally Ashe, staff  from MVU (Microbiology and Virology Unit) are booked to donate again in August.




Jordan Gaskell successfully completed his IOSH Working Safely in April, well done!

Sandra Taylor, Senior Research Technician at Synbiochem was recently shortlisted for the FSE Better World Showcase. This is the forerunner to the university wide Making a Difference awards, which she was also commended for. Excellent work!




Learning For All

Have you seen this season’s addition of Learning For All, your easy access round up of what is available from Staff Learning and Development?

This online guide helps you identify suitable development opportunities and allows you to take control of your own learning. Take a look through the suggested resources and build on your development with short bite-size learning or see what courses are coming up over then the Autumn term.