Wow. It’s been over a year since my last blog post. A lot has happened since then, though not a lot scientifically which is why I haven’t posted much. Not a lot of updates for me other than lots of (failed) applications, lack of publishing, and that little global pandemic throwing everything into disarray…
One reason I’ve been pretty busy over the last while is that I had the opportunity to work full time as the lab manager in our palaeo lab for 7 months from December to July. Our lab manager went on parental leave, and I was hired to replace him for 6 months, but then was extended due to the pandemic and the labs reopening at the same time as Tom coming back. I (mostly) really enjoyed it and really appreciated the experience as I learned quite a lot. I thought it would be interesting to talk about my experiences as a lab technician/manager especially for those who haven’t done anything like this before.
So the job that I was doing was Palaeobiology Lab Manager at the University of Bristol, which meant I was responsible for a number of different labs and equipment. The main responsibility is running our µ-CT scanner, which is used by groups all over the university to get 3D data of their samples ranging from fossils (of course, it’s run by the palaeo group) to fly heads to rocks. It’s a big job, which requires running of the scanner, organising the maintenance, training new users (people who are scanning a lot are able to get training to run their own scans), and doing all the finances involved. I had operated the scanner before, but now have a lot more experience running scans of a variety of different samples. One of the other joys of that is running the maintenance including swapping targets, and replacing filaments when they blow. It can be really frustrating when you’ve got a whole week of scans organised and then your filament blows, which puts you back probably about 3 hours in a day for the whole process. Anyone who has worked with CT scanners before knows that they break a lot, and I think a significant amount of my job consisted of trying to get the scanner fixed and working. That was probably my least favourite part…
In addition to running the scanner, I was also responsible for the accompanying tomography computer lab for analysis and processing of CT scans and other 3D data. This is a lab full of 12 high end computers with all of the imaging programmes needed to analyse the CT scans. One of my favourite things about the job was running training on some of the software, which I’m very familiar with. It was nice to teach new students some of my experience and to show them how to use the software. Since the lockdown happened just as students were starting their projects, I did a lot of remote trouble shooting, which wasn’t expected, but it was still enjoyable.
In addition to the 3D tomography sides of things, I also had to manage some more traditional wet labs with fume hoods, chemicals, and microscopes. This was probably the newest thing to me as I haven’t spent a lot of time in those kinds of labs before, but it wasn’t too hard. I learned a lot, and enjoyed actually wearing a lab coat once in a while!
Of course, about 3.5 months in to my 6.5 month contract, the pandemic hit and we went into lockdown. I wasn’t furloughed, and continued to work from home. How do you work as a lab manager without a lab to manage, you ask? Well essentially I turned into an IT advisor for the group a bit, sorting out remote access to computers and helping with access to software. I also worked on writing up some procedures that were needed that we didn’t have time to do before, and re-organising some online material in a better way. Then in the last month of lockdown, I was writing covid-reopening protocols for all of our labs, and making sure that everything was covid safe.
I learned a lot of skills during this during the 7 months, and am really happy I did the job. One thing I really gained was an appreciation for technicians and technical staff, which I think a lot of researchers kind of forget. It’s a lot of work, and can be tricky with the whole group pulling you in different directions. Often you’re working on timescales that are impossible, and a lot of managing expectations. The number of times I had people email me to CT scan something “immediately”, and I had to explain that either the scanner was booked for a month straight, or that the scanner was broken, I can’t even remember. It’s important for people to remember that you can’t control the equipment, and that you’re managing an entire facility with many people using it, not just one researcher.
Another thing that I realised especially as the pandemic hit, was how often technicians are kind of left behind to pick everything else up. As the lockdown was coming in and people were starting to stop coming into the uni, the uni was still officially open and students were trying to get as much work done as they could before shutdown. The uni was encouraging people to work from home, but then also very clearly saying that labs would remain open as long as they could so research could continue, which left technicians in an awkward middle. There was at least a week or two where I would have rather been working at home because I didn’t really want to put myself at risk, but felt obligated to come in because I had to keep the labs running. Some staff understood the unfairness here and were lovely, and others really didn’t appreciate how their actions affected others. Although my boss and managers were very clear that I was not expected to be in if I wasn’t comfortable, you can’t help but feel that you don’t want to let people down.
Though there were times that I felt a bit under-appreciated, as I’m sure all lab techs do on occasion, the group really made up for it by pitching in to get me a smashing leaving gift, including a gin club membership, a gift certificate to a spa/restaurant, some beautiful flowers, and some matching gin glasses. It was a lovely gesture to show me that they did appreciate my hard work, and made me feel appreciated. So thanks once again to my Bristol Palaeo friends and colleagues for recognising how hard I was working 🙂 It was unnecessary, but much appreciated!
All in all, I really enjoyed my 7 months as lab manager. I missed doing some research, but it was nice to focus on set goals each day and also to have some evenings and weekends off. But my take-home message is to appreciate or lab techs and managers! Thank them for working their butts off and doing all the stuff you need for your research to run. Without them, there would be no labs, so recognise that.