Simon Baker: 00:07
Hello, this is Team Science, a podcast brought to you by Nature Careers, in partnership with Nature Index.
I’m Simon Baker, chief editor at Nature Index, which tracks research articles in leading science journals.
In this series, we explore behind the scenes of academia, and speak to the people who make it all possible, but do not necessarily get the credit.
This series is sponsored by Western Sydney University. And at the end of this episode, we’ll hear about how it is helping to champion team science.
In episode four, we meet the lab managers and technicians who tirelessly support research, from planning Antarctic expeditions to handmaking intricate glassware.
Elaine Fitzcharles: 00:53
My name is Dr Elaine Fitzcharles, and I'm the senior laboratory manager at the British Antarctic Survey based in Cambridge in the UK.
So I lead a small team of lab managers and technicians. We oversee the management of all the BAS laboratories. Our main facilities is in Cambridge, but we also have five research stations in Antarctica, one in the Arctic, and our new polar research ship, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, or the SDA, as we like to call it for short.
I spend a large amount of time at my desk working on paperwork, or responding to emails, or at meetings, working with the departments across BAS and other research institutes to plan our polar research projects.
I decided when I was about 12 years old that I wanted to be a marine biologist, because I was a swimmer, and I liked dolphins and I love spending time in the water.
So that was what I wanted to do. And I got into a, so I started my academic career at doing a marine and environmental biology degree at St Andrews University in Scotland. And I wanted to stay in the local area when I finished but there were limited job opportunities.
So I took a slightly altered career path. And I got a job as a DNA database scientist at the police forensic laboratory in Dundee, where I learned genetics on the job. So that’s where my molecular background came into things.
But I decided after a few years there that I actually wanted to get back into research, I didn’t want to be doing a routine day-to-day job.
And the opportunity came up at BAS for a genomics technician in a new molecular laboratory that they were building.
And I thought it looked interesting.It matched my new skill set, it would get me back with links to marine biology because of the research they do.
So I thought, I initially saw as a short term opportunity to come to BAS to get my foot back into the research world, and then see what it took me from there.
That was 19 years ago. And I’m still here. So BAS has supported me through a part-time PhD, with St Andrews University. So it gave me a good reason to go back up there for visits as well.
You’ve got to know your science, I think, you know, that’s one of the things is I have to have a good understanding of a lot of science that isn’t necessarily my interest. So you’ve got to be able to understand the science to understand people’s needs. You’ve got to have good technical skills as well, and be good at problem solving and troubleshooting and trying to think outside the box.
For us, it’s understanding the wider science area. Because we’re so multidisciplinary you really do need to know the whole field. Different science disciplines from you know, geology, atmospherics biology.
So it makes it varied, but interesting. And, and sometimes it is trying to figure out what things do just from research, you know, researching the field yourself, to find out what equipment is needed and what risks are involved. A large amount of what we do is the legal and the sort of legislative requirements.
So that’s the side that we take care of. So the scientists don’t necessarily have to worry about it. So you know, your health and safety, we’ve got all of our import licenses and things as well, all the hoops that you have to jump through to be allowed to do Antarctic science. And understanding the constraints that was actually put upon the project delivery.
So you know, there’s certain chemicals we won’t let people take into the Antarctic, there's certain equipment you can’t use on moving platforms. So it’s being able to give that kind of advice to scientists. You’ve got to really understand the basis of what of what you’re doing.
And as my jobs progressed, I’m taking on more and more management skills. So that’s, that’s the side I’ve had to sort of learn as I’ve gone along is, is the management side of things.
The budget, the resources, interpersonal skills. You deal with a lot with people, a lot of diplomacy sometimes is required, but also staying neutral.
You’ve got to stay neutral and objective. So you’ve got to be able to look at things objectively and not let personal opinion influence what you’re doing. So, you know, patience, diplomacy, and being able to troubleshoot are probably the key things.
I would say there is definitely a them-and-us culture within research. I think it varies in how significant that is between institute's and within departments and with individual scientists. It's a shame, but it's a reality.
So I remember when I first started here, I, when I started my PhD, I had a comment from a very senior researcher that doing a PhD wouldn’t change the fact that I was just a technician. And I should accept that reality.
I was also told that if I wanted any career progression, that I needed to change to a research post, that it wouldn’t be possible in laboratory management.
But I have to say it’s changed. I’ve, you know, I got my PhD. People, interestingly, do see having doctor in front of my name. being that I am a scientist. So you do get a different attitude from people.
I don’t know anymore from a technical point of view, because of it, I know a lot more about one fish. It hasn’t improved my, you know, having a PhD doesn’t improve my skills necessarily, as a lab manager or as a technician.
But it’s seen as having more knowledge because of it, which is a, you know, a concept, I would like to challenge.
I think you don’t need to have a doctor in front of your name to be an expert in your field. And I know many experts that don’t.
Attitude, I think, varies with individuals, that are some who definitely recognize the value of the support staff around them and delivering their projects.There are others who see you as being there to do their bidding.
I think it is changing, I think it’s changing with new people coming through. It's changing because of a drive to change it. So there’s the recognition out there now that there is this divide. And it’s not justified. It’s not a protected characteristic.
So it’s not seen as wrong when you do when you discriminate against someone for being a technician, but it should be seen as wrong. And the culture has to start challenging that.
Devin Lake: 07:27
My name is Devin Lake. I am a PhD student and the lab manager of the Lenski Lab at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
My job is split kind of 50/50 between being a PhD student and managing the lab. So, as a lab manager, my job usually consists of like working on, helping prepare other researchers in the lab for the experiments they’re going to run.
Managing resource allocation, things like making sure everyone has, like, the reagents, they need. The physical glassware, the bench space, depending on what projects they are working on.
We also have several lab technicians that work in our lab. And they, I am in charge of making sure that they keep up with maintaining the lab and getting the proper materials and things prepped for researchers before their experiments, and helping take like take down afterwards.
And then as a PhD student, I have to set up experiments, run them in that same kind of time constraint, along with the other people in our lab.
Fortunately, I mostly do theoretical work, so I don’t have to worry about as much of the bench space. So more specifically, my research looks into the dynamics of mutations after long term periods of evolution.
So after things have started to stabilize, and there’s less novel environments, how do the dynamics continue to change? So I can kind of do some work on my computer while also maintaining the lab at the same time, on the same, like, area.
From what I understand, most people have become a lab manager just become one after working in a lab, they either get a PhD or a Masters, or worked as a technician as an undergrad.
And that’s the same situation I was in. I was just a technician that worked in the lab. And then I just started as a lab manager. There was no formal training. There was no kind of onboarding or anything like that. I was mentored by the previous lab manager and that helped a lot. So I could kind of have her to go to to ask questions while I was learning.
But aside from that, I think most people go from being a scientist to being a lab manager. So there are things like learning to kind of change the mindset of by having to go from starting and running a whole project to trying to manage and organize groups of people all working on separate projects.
So skills like organization, a lot of meetings scheduling, and deciding what needs to be what needs to be meetings, what doesn’t, learning all of the safety training rules, any kind of regulations that are involved with your lab, that didn’t just apply to whatever project you were working on before.
Those would all be great, like skills to develop or, like be taught or learned ahead of time, versus trying to kind of learn them on the fly.
So I would say, from my experience in the US, there is some them-and-us culture between the academic researchers and the professional services/esearch support. But I think it's more of a case-by-case basis and less of an overall trend. In my work specifically, within my lab, I don't experience that so much because I am also a researcher.
And I’ve been with the lab for so long that they’re all just used to having me around and working on the projects. But our lab also works in, it collaborates with lots of other labs all around the world.
And I have to do a lot of work, sending them samples from our experiment and strains, where I am more of a research support roles to those labs.
And in that case, I end up doing a lot of work and putting in time and effort for things that I don’t get credit for typically, because they don’t really put. You’re not gonna put a lot of effort into saying, “Oh, this person from the US sent us these strains in your paper,” because it’s not relevant.
So I can see where that kind of disconnect would come from, and why they would feel underappreciated, because they, people like lab technicians and research support staff do contribute a lot of work and may not get recognized for it.
But I think in in my specific position, I don’t experience it nearly as often. And I think in an academic setting, it’s probably different than it would be in a, like, corporate position as well.
Yeah, what I mean by that is in a commercial setting, the research staff and the support staff probably get more equal recognition.
Whereas in an academic setting, it’s more, it’s more valuable to the researchers to get their name added to the paper.
So they’re more worried about their own contributions being recognized. Whereas in a, in a commercial setting, it’s less important for everyone to get their name on everything.
So they probably, I would imagine they get more equal recognition and fair treatment together. In those settings. I can’t say for sure, but….
Terri Adams: 13:11
My name is Terri Adams, and I am the glass design and fabrication facility manager at Oxford University. So I design, construct and repair research apparatus for use across the whole of the university.
That’s glass apparatus. The apparatus I make is fundamental to the research that’s based at Oxford and it involves fabricating, bespoke or modifying research apparatus which either already exists in the department or is evolved.
And it can be things like vacuum lines for manipulating gases out of an atmosphere.bIt can be small electrochemical cells, it can be furnace tubes that have to go up to ultra high temperature. It can be any of a number of things.
People tend to think that the glassware in a chemistry laboratory is conical flasks, and beakers and test tubes. In a teaching environment, yes, but in a research environment, very much not the case.
Most of the apparatus that is glass is bespoke for a specific purpose and often unique to the institution that is used in. So a piece of equipment such as a manifold Schlenk manifold that they use in Oxford may be a different design and a different spec to a similarly named piece of apparatus in another research laboratory.
Yeah, so I fell into scientific glassblowing. My interest was actually forensic science. And I’d lined up a job working for the Home Office, based in Chorley in Lancashire.
But there was a 12-month wait between the job offer and actually becoming available. During that time, I attended a university Open Day at the University of Bristol with a friend.
And whilst she was busy looking around the research lab, I stood in the foyer a talking to somebody who had this absolutely amazing array of wonderful glass shapes.
And it turned out that everything on the table had been made on site in the university's glassblowing workshop.
Never seen glassblowing before in my life, I talked to this chap for about an hour. And it was amazing. It was. It really blew my mind.
Anyway, I came away from that. And regularly I used to peruse the pages of the local newspaper to see what job opportunities there were around. And I saw an advert for an apprentice scientific glassblower based at the university, so I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.”
So I applied for it. I went for the initial interview, got through that. They invited me into the workshop for a day, got through that, because the workshop environment isn't for the faint hearted.
As you can imagine, there are flames, there are sharps, all sorts of things. I managed to get through that. And they invited me back for a week.
So did the week, loved it, got offered the job. And I thought, “Well, if I don’t like it, I can still go and do my forensics.”
But I’ve been glassblowing ever since. And that’s 33 years now. From a personal point of view, yes, I feel appreciated here at Oxford.
And that’s, that’s a big factor in why I’ve stayed here for so long. But I am aware that in other places, it’s not so much.
My personal opinion is a lot of that is actually down to the way you present yourself and how approachable you are, and the contributions you make.
I find personally, other service providers tend to think that if you don’t ask for new equipment, and if you keep yourself to yourself, under the radar, you're safe. What I find is completely the opposite.
It pays to ask for investment, to tell people what you can do, and to be proactive in seeking things out and publicising yourself rather than sitting back.
But I mean, here at Oxford, I do feel appreciated, there is a bit of a them-and-us culture, but it tends to actually come from the lower ranking researchers, not the senior academics.
One of the problems I found is being someody who's done it for a long time, you make it look easy.
So when people come in and see you work in, you make it look easy. So they assume it is. And I find it, they got a greater degree of appreciation for you, if you let them have a go or try to teach them some basic skills. Then their attitude towards you changed massively, in a positive way.
Devin Lake: 18:19
So I have kind of mixed feelings about the addition of, or making sure that research support staff are acknowledged on publications and like announcements, because in one aspect of it, it may not matter to them.
I know some people who are lab managers, and they don’t intend on moving forward in academia, so it doesn't matter to them whether or not their names is added to publications.
So that aspect of it may not matter as much to them. And I can also understand in situations where…at one point, our lab had a huge number of people in it. And they were all publishing papers.
But it had several different individual groups, probably six or so people working on different kinds of projects. But it had one lab manager and two technicians.
And if they were included on all of those publications, the manager and the technicians would have their names added to all sorts of publications, whereas the various groups working all in the same space, like, in tandem collaboration with each other, but not…they’re giving each other feedback but not actually working on the project, wouldn’t. So it does feel a little unfair in that regard.
Because you’d be over, you’d be over-representing the contributions to the science by the support staff. So I can see where both sides of the argument could fall.
Elaine Fitzcharles: 19:51
I think one of the problems with being in a support role is your output is somebody else’s success. So it can be very difficult to say “I did this,”, because you’ve contributed to someone else’s research and someone else’s research papers. Whether or not you’re acknowledged, and those, it’s very much down to the researcher.
And that’s another thing we’re trying to challenge, is to make sure that the support staff who’ve contributed to research actually get the acknowledgement that they deserve on the outputs.
And I know that’s something that’s been discussed within UKRI, as well, that’s our parent body. Because one of the things we find is, you get noticed when things go wrong, but you don’t get noticed when things go right. So it can have a very negative opinion of the role.
The only time people see what you’ve done is when something didn’t work. They don’t see the stuff that does work, because if it does work, everybody else’s job goes smoothly. So it’s, it’s a difficult position to try and give measurable outputs.
And I think that can often lead to that them-and-us. This sort of scenario where it looks like you've done nothing, whereas the scientist has got this fabulous research.
But actually, the research wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for the support staff. And the better your support team, the more productive you can be as a research scientist, so it does need to be recognized that them-and-us culture doesn’t work.
You know, you need to appreciate the support roles throughout the organization. You know, as I say, we’ve got probably slightly more novel support roles than most academic institutes because of what we do.
But without the skills of those engineers, the technicians, none of the field science would happen. You know, people certainly wouldn't be able to get to the places that we work.
So, you know, everybody should be valued. It’s a team effort. Everyone is part of that process. And part of that output.
It used to be that becoming a technician was because you couldn’t cut it as a scientist. Well, actually, it’s a different skillset.
And we should be allowing people to play to their skills, not putting them in positions where they’re actually doing something that’s outside of their skill set.
There was a paper a number of years ago in New Scientist about people being promoted to the level of incompetence. And that’s, that’s something that still stands in academia. You can be a very good academic, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a very good manager.
You know, it’s a different skillset to be good at science than it is to manage people. It’s a different skill set to be good at the technical side of things than it is to use the instrument to deliver the science.
So having that team and recognizing that everybody has different things they bring to the table I think gives you a much stronger organization, and much better science output.
But it is there unfortunately. I’ve chosen to ignore the negative comments and go ahead with my career regardless. Which has which has worked for me, which has been good. I’m in an organization that allowed that whereas I might not have had the same success in other academic organizations.
Simon Baker: 23:21
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Team Science podcast. I’m Simon Baker, chief editor at Nature Index. The producer was Dom Byrne.
Next up, we’ll hear how Western Sydney University, the sponsor of this series, is helping to champion team science.
Caris Bizzaca 23:45:I’m Caris Bizzaca and welcome to this podcast series from Western Sydney University. Over this six-episode series I’ll be introducing you to some incredible research taking place — from a million-dollar fungi project that’s helping combat climate change, to surveys into maternity care treatment, to creating electric vehicles for women in rural African communities, and more. These projects are just a handful of those that entered the 2022 and 2023 Research Impact Competition, run by Western Sydney University in Australia.
There’s also something else they have in common: they each speak to a Sustainable Development Goal or SDG — a list of 17 goals created by the United Nations, which tackle global issues including poverty, hunger, climate change, gender inequality and access to education.
So how do we identify problems and then the pathway forward? Well, through research. And this research is happening at universities across the globe, who are graded in the annual Times Higher Education Impact rankings on their commitment to the SDGs. This is significant because out of 1,700 universities in the world, Western Sydney University ranked number one overall for the past two years. And if we drill down into the SDGs it excelled in, it came first for the goals Gender Equality, Partnership for the Goals, and Responsible Consumption and Production. For more information about Sustainable Development Goals you can visit sdgs.un.org and keep listening, as the researchers across this series will talk to how their projects contribute to positive change.
Before we dive in, I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the custodians of the lands where Western Sydney University campuses are located, and pay respect to the peoples of the Dharug, Tharawal, Eora and Wiradjuri nations. I pay my respect to elders past and present. Always was, always will be.
Now, let’s hear from some of the researchers from Western Sydney University’s Research Impact Competition.
Dr Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez 23:51
Thinking about climate change, we have to consider that cities are going to get much more warmer. So, yes, as we get into the future, trees will be under more stress and of course water will be an issue.
Caris Bizzaca 26:04
That’s Dr Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez from the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, who’s a research theme fellow in environment and sustainability at Western Sydney University — and a self-described ‘urban tree detective’. Dr Esperon-Rodriguez was the winner of the 2023 Research Impact Competition for his project, which investigates the impact of climate change on urban forests. The project first came about because of the Which Plant Where programme — a collaboration between Western Sydney University and Macquarie University to discover what trees and plants would fare best in predicted climate-change scenarios.
Dr Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez 26:41
So, I spent two years contacting more than 200 cities all across Australia, asking if they could provide me with any information they have about the species that they were no longer planting because they knew they were failing because of climate change. And, very shockingly, none of the cities could give me any information. So, I started thinking about this situation and how I could, with my research, help councils to identify those vulnerable and also the resilient plant species. And that’s how I came, with my colleagues, we came with this idea of developing an assessment where we evaluate the tolerance of trees and shrubs species planted in 164 cities across the world to see if they were already expe riencing stressful conditions and how this could change into the future thinking about climate change.
Caris Bizzaca 27:31
The project has gone global, because Dr Esperon-Rodriguez and his team realised that the lack of research wasn’t unique to Australia.
Dr Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez 27:40
We came together — researchers from 14 countries — to write this opinion paper, highlighting the need of doing research that can identify climate change as a driver of urban failures. We got people from the US, from Brazil, Chile, China, Sweden, Norway, South Africa. Everywhere in those countries where we were doing these research, we found the same. It is just not something that people are actively collecting or identifying as specifically climate change as a cause of tree mortality. And that’s because of two things. One, we don’t have the long-term data capable to attribute climate change as the cause of failure because we need years and years of this data to actually make these conclusions. But, there is also the other issue that identified causes of failure in urban settings; it’s very, very complex because sometimes it’s just not about the result of a single event.
Caris Bizzaca 28:39
What Dr Esperon-Rodriguez is now doing, is monitoring trees in different climates across Australia.
Dr Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez 28:46
We’re developing this project with colleagues from the Australian National University, so we selected seven cities from the very dry and very hot Mildura in between New South Wales and Victoria, Mandurah in Western Australia, Adelaide, Melbourne, here in Sydney and Penrith and Parramatta. So I went to these cities and I collected the core of the tree, so I was collecting tree rings and the hypothesis was that the trees that we were going to assess were going to have, potentially, a lower growth in the dry and hot cities like Mildura. And what we have found so far is that trees are adapting quite well. Trees can adapt to cities given the opportunity. If they have water, if they are well-maintained, they can thrive and survive quite well in those cities. Of course, there is so much that we need to keep researching.
Caris Bizzaca 29:40
Dr Esperon-Rodriguez’s research also contributes to three SDGs.
Dr Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez 29:45
It can align very well to goal number 11 — Sustainable Cities and Communities. But it is also related to goal number 3, Good Health and Well-being, because of course this research is aiming to build resilient urban forests where people can enjoy the benefits of them. And I think also to the goal 13, Climate Action, because definitely we need to start making mindful decisions, because we want to make sure that no matter what we’re planting is going to survive, thrive and grow in the future because we really need to start thinking about having a big canopy cover in the next 30 or 50 years.
Caris Bizzaca 30:21
Because there are many positive impacts of having a city with lots of greenery.
Dr Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez 30:26
For example, heat mitigation and cooling benefits. We all can appreciate standing under a tree when it’s very hot outside. They provide habitat and food for other species. They can also provide mitigation of pollution. We also see the benefits in physical and mental health. I think that that was one of the most important lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. During the lockdowns, I think a lot of people came to truly appreciate the value of green spaces to improve mental and physical health, and also for social integration.
Caris Bizzaca 31:01
To engage the community, Dr Esperon-Rodriguez is also developing an Australian urban tree app, which will call on citizen science groups to help monitor trees. Then, the results from the app will be used to consolidate a national open-access database, so anyone can see what is happening in their own urban forest.
Dr Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez 31:21
I want to keep working with councils to try to make sure that the right information gets to everyone so everyone can have a full understanding of why trees are so important. Because we can make beautiful research and have all this amazing information to help councils. But if this is not going to be accepted by people, if people are not going to care and to protect their urban trees, then there is nothing we can do. So yeah, I think that that is also something I want to keep working on and see how we can help people to have a better relationship with their urban forest.
Caris Bizzaca 31:57
With next steps, Dr Esperon-Rodriguez is doing more research into the adaptations trees have made in Australian urban environments. His team are also developing maps for cities across the world that identify vulnerable species and individual locations where trees are at higher risk.
Dr Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez 32:15
Well, I would love to see my research being implemented and used in cities, and it’s already happening — last year I collaborated with City of Sydney council and they asked me to provide advice for their master street plan and their street tree list. And that’s what I would like to see — cities using this as a tool, especially those cities that they have less resources and they don’t have, potentially, an urban tree inventory. So yeah, I think that’s so important, the applicability of my research in the real space and see people in governments planting species that are resilient to climate change. Urban forests can play a key role and a crucial part into the improvement of human well-being in cities and we are becoming an urban species, right? So there are more people living in cities today than in non-urban areas. So I think that it’s very meaningful, the research that I am doing and the impact that it can have — not only in Australian cities but also globally.
Caris Bizzaca 33:21
That was Dr Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez, the winner of the 2023 Research Impact Competition at Western Sydney University. Join us for the next episode to find out more about the research being undertaken in Australia and its real-world impact, both now and into the future.