Article People Science

Excellent science? It’s in the technical detail

While a lot of people might still picture scientific breakthroughs as down to a lone genius having a eureka moment, science is a team sport.

27 January 2023

The success of cutting-edge research projects often hinges on the work of unsung heroes - lab technicians, data scientists, and support staff – who use their collective skill and expertise to drive progress. Despite their hard work, these indispensable people have not always been recognised or rewarded for their contributions. 

The Earlham Institute has pledged to address this by signing up to the Technician Commitment, an organisational promise to safeguard vital technical skills and mark previously overlooked contributions to research. Signatories to the commitment champion greater visibility, recognition, and career development opportunities for those working in technical roles. 

Vanda Knitlhoffer, Research Assistant at the Earlham Institute

Vanda Knitlhoffer, Research Assistant in the Genomics Pipelines team

The Institute will be working with staff in technical roles to put together an action plan to address these challenges. As part of the commitment, it also pledges to reassess this plan every two years to ensure it is delivering for the individuals and roles it encompasses. 

The process began with a launch event on 19 January. Speakers from the John Innes Centre, which joined the Technician Commitment in 2017, were Clare Stevenson, Head of Directorate, and Penny Hundleby, Senior Scientist in Crop Genetics. After the speeches technicians from the Institute were invited to discuss what they wanted including in the action plan.

Fiona Fraser (below, centre) is Senior Research Assistant in Genomics Pipelines, and Earlham Institute technical lead for the commitment. 

She said: “The Technician Commitment is designed to give a voice to people who don’t normally have a voice in academia – those members of staff who do vital work but are not always acknowledged.”

She describes the commitment as having very broad applications and supporting a spectrum of careers.

“The traditional idea of a technician is someone who supports research in a wet lab. But technical staff can also be computer specialists, software engineers, or general support staff. They can be post-docs or data scientists - people who would not normally think of themselves as technical staff.”

Helen Murdoch, Athena Swan and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Co-ordinator
Fiona Fraser, Research Assistant at the Earlham Institute
Neil Shearer, Project Manager in the Genomics team at EI

Helen Murdoch, (above, left) Athena Swan and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Co-ordinator, worked on the project with Fiona, and feels the Technician Commitment is becoming a marker of organisations who want to do the best for their staff.

“We believe - in time - the Technician Commitment will sit in the same arena as Athena Swan. If an organisation cares about staff and wants to present itself as a good employer, they will have this in place.

“We want to give technical staff a chance to develop and level up - not just in early career but mid to late career as well.”

More than 100 institutions have already enrolled in the Technician Commitment, which began at the University of Nottingham in May 2017 by then-technician Kelly Vere MBE.

Meet some of our technicians.

Chris Watkins, Project Management Team Leader

Chris Watkins, Genomics Pipelines Project Management Team Leader

Chris manages three staff, he and the team work with collaborators and colleagues to deliver projects, provide quotes, and track and coordinate samples from submission to data delivery.

He said: “I am a strong believer in supporting staff to develop their skills, but also helping to guide them in shaping an appropriate career path. This will empower them to learn and develop with passion, benefiting both them and the organisation.  

“I hope that joining the Technician Commitment will bring this front and centre. It will have a fantastic benefit to the culture of the Earlham Institute. All staff matter, no matter what job title you have.”

Leah Catchpole, Genomics Pipelines Team Leader

Leah Catchpole, Genomics Pipelines Team Leader

Leah is responsible for the Sample Preparation Team at the Earlham Institute.

She has 27 years’ experience at the Norwich Research Park and is an expert in all areas of sample preparation, with a particular interest in RNA based protocols and complex genomes. 

She said: “By joining the Technicians Commitment, I am hoping to discover what other opportunities are available to me as a technician to help me progress in my career. Whether it be broadening my skills base, meeting new people and networking, sharing my knowledge and helping people, I am open to see where this journey will take us.  

“I hope it will help raise awareness of the valuable role technicians have in any organisation.” 

Kathryn Dugdale-Evans, Business Development Administrator

Kathryn Dugdale-Evans, sitting at a table looking to the side of the camera facing her colleague

Kathryn works in the Business Development and Impact team, providing support for EI’s Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation strategy.

From coordinating the completion of contracts and agreements to the logistics of events and client visits, this varied role sits within the wider Operations Division.

She said: "Seeing EI supporting the Technician Commitment is a great benefit and opportunity for my colleagues, as well as the wider Institute.

"Technical experts provide critical thinking, problem-solving, attention to detail, and make things happen in a wide variety of roles across the organisation.

"By becoming a signatory, I hope it will highlight the multitude of skills and abilities among the team. To have these more widely recognised is a fantastic step forward in changing the perceived value and contribution of all employees."

Greg Pye, Digital Media and Website Manager

Photo of Greg, who has dark blonde hair and wears brown glasses, working at his desk with two screens.

Greg works in the Communications Team and supports colleagues across the Institute, sharing their research and promoting the Institute’s activities with our external audiences. 

He said: “It's great to see that the Commitment champions and values the visibility of roles outside of what can sometimes be perceived as 'traditional academia'.

"Success in research, or in any sector, cannot be achieved alone. As someone that works in an operational support capacity, I think it's important that the expertise and experience these roles bring to an organisation are recognised, and I'm looking forward to supporting the Commitment's development at the Institute."

Karim Gharbi, Head of Genomics Pipelines

Karim Gharbi, Head of Genomics Pipelines sitting at his desk looking off to the side ofthe camera

Karim leads a team of specialist scientists with expertise in technical development, data production, and project management who provide critical support to genomics research at the Institute and beyond.

He also collaborates with other EI colleagues on key scientific, financial, and operational strategies and policies for the Institute.

He said: “I am really excited about EI joining the Technician Commitment. The Institute would simply not function without the expertise of technical and professional staff from all backgrounds. 

“Action-based initiatives like the Technician Commitment will boost our efforts to increase visibility and recognition for those highly-skilled staff and help the institute attract, develop, and retain talent to deliver world-class research.”

Amy Lyall
Article author

Amy Lyall

Scientific Communications and Outreach Officer