At the heart of the University is a team of expert technicians – carrying out a hugely diverse range of highly skilled tasks to support our research and teaching. This week the Technician Commitment is celebrating its 5th anniversary, and Karen Henderson, Director of Technical Services, reflects on the very real contribution our technicians make to the life, success and impact of our research.
In 2017, the University was a founding signatory of the Technician Commitment. Now more than 91 universities and research institutions from across the UK have backed a pledge to support their technicians. The Commitment is a sector-wide initiative led by the Science Council, supported by the Gatsby Foundation to ensure greater visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability for technicians across all disciplines.
Technicians are experts in the practical application of sciences and arts and therefore, you will find us in specialist spaces such as laboratories and workshops, film studios and theatres, controlled environments (such as glasshouses) and on the farm. We support teaching and research across diverse disciplines and have thousands of different skills between us.
We have so many skills in supporting all levels of researchers that it is difficult to know where to start. We design and build bespoke research equipment and operate sophisticated, state-of-the-art research facilities. Activities can range from flying drones, to beekeeping, to glassblowing, and much more.
Here’s a whistlestop tour of some of our current work.
Putting potatoes on the moon?
In the Crops and Environment Laboratories, most of the research is driven by food security and climate change, and we use our skills across a wide range of plant research inducing soft fruit technology, crop research, horticulture, cocoa and agro-ecology projects.
Some of the exciting work we are currently supporting includes a series of experiments looking at the effects of lighting, elevated CO2 and artificially shortened growth seasons on the increased output, increased sugar content and increased availability of strawberries. We have an experimental potato hydroponic system designed from NASA research into crop growth on the moon – although we are using the system to test drought and heat resistance, and we are running a set of experiments in conjunction with RHS Wisley looking at ornamental species and how selective roadside planting could help reduce air pollution.
Forensics, food and pollution
The Chemical Analysis Facility in the School of Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy and the Confocal Facility linked to the Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research in the School of Biological Sciences possess the equipment and technical expertise to carry out and support complementary analytical and microscopical research on very diverse materials. Broadly speaking, these fall into the categories of minerals and inert materials, chemical and pharmaceutical compounds, and biological specimens. Examples include archaeological finds, chocolate, cheese and cereal doughs (which fall somewhere between material science and biology), forensic chemical analysis, micro-plastic pollution in fish and invertebrate tissues, blood clotting processes affected by Covid-19 infection, and cancer metastasis in brain tissues.
Autism, depression and Alzheimer’s
Our skills in the MRI Facility in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences support University-led research and NHS clinical trials, studies from industry and collaborations with other research institutes. The topics of this research range from studying different diseases, such as Autism, Depression, Alzheimer’s disease, Chronical Pain, to nutrition or more fundamental research on the aging population and brain development. Similarly, our skills in the Bioresource Unit in the School of Biological Sciences support some research that can only take place with the use of animals, including studies into heart disease, stroke, diabetes, epilepsy and muscle diseases.
Carts for crops
Our whirlwind tour comes to an end with our teams in Meteorology and the Crops Research Unit at Sonning who recently combined their skills to build an upgrade to a field crop phenotyping cart. The cart now has sensors logging five times per second as it passes through crops, giving measurements in crop height, canopy temperature and light interception. This has proved itself recently on an Oregin Oilseed Rape crop and is now ready more generally for spring/summer cereal crops.
Nanobodies and archaeology
Outside of the research facilities our skills support a whole range of additional activities including immunising llamas to produce nanobodies, building radar rigs, archaeological fieldwork and investigating pollution levels in local schools.
Here I’ve tried to give just a flavour of some of our diverse and highly specialised expertise that underpins the amazing research that goes on at the University. The Technician Commitment recognises these unique skills and encourages us to ensure that they are developed and sustained for the future.
Karen Henderson is Director of Technical Services.