Image credits: Burcu Bronner Anar / Wellcome Sanger Institute

Categories: Sanger Life9 March 2023

Building Confidence and Careers: Research Institute Technician Symposium 2023

The Wellcome Sanger Institute proudly hosted this year’s Research Institute Technician Symposium, with around 90 technicians and technical experts in attendance from across the Research Institute Technician Group. This group includes the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Babraham Institute, Crick Institute, Institute of Cancer Research, John Innes Centre, Mary Lyon Centre at MRC Harwell, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences and Science and Technology Facilities Council.

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Technicians and technical experts use their practical application of knowledge and skills in the techniques, tools and technology of their subject to support their organisation’s teaching, learning, research and enterprise activities, and play a vital role in scientific advancement.

With over half of the staff at the Sanger Institute working in technical roles, it’s vital that we nurture and develop their skills and careers, whilst championing and valuing their achievements. Now in its third year, and sponsored by the Sanger Institute, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and others, the annual Research Institute Technician Symposium aims to do just that.

Technicians and technical experts gathered together in the Wellcome Genome Campus’ Conference Centre on Friday 3rd March to enjoy a day full of networking, workshops, talks and to celebrate success.

Building Confidence

The 2023 symposium was about building confidence; a theme selected by the technicians themselves. Feedback was gathered by the organisers throughout the day, and attendees were asked to describe how they were feeling shortly after taking their seats. Words started to flash up on the screen to capture the emotions in the room: Excited. Intrigued. Curious. But it swiftly became clear that many were experiencing anxious thoughts about the day ahead: Nervous. Unsure. Apprehensive. With this being the first in-person symposium for many in the room, and with confidence-building selected as the theme, it’s unsurprising that there were mixed emotions as it started. James Marshall was the event's Master of Ceremonies, and it is a testament to James and the speakers present on the day that any nervous energy quickly dissipated, paving the way for open discussions, collaborative talks and honest self-reflections.

After a short introduction from the event host, Burcu Bronner-Anar, Technician Commitment Lead at the Sanger Institute, it was time for Julia Wilson, Associate Director and Deputy Chair of the Board of Management at Sanger, to kick things off with a warm welcome. Julia highlighted that it has been 30 years since the Institute’s inception, and having recently come through the challenges of the pandemic, she noted that, “the importance of technical staff has never been clearer”.

Herschel Programme

The Herschel Programme for Women in Technical Leadership was the subject of the first talk delivered by Shelley-Ann Coutts, Advanced Research Assistant at the Sanger Institute. Named after the early ‘technician’ Caroline Herschel, a pioneer in the discovery of comets and other astronomy work, this national programme seeks to elevate and advance opportunities for women who are current or aspiring leaders in technical roles. Shelley-Ann was enthused to be a part of the programme’s first ever cohort last year, with 170 delegates from across UK higher education and research institutions enjoying six months of training. Modules covered leadership, influencing and negotiating, and confidence and empowerment; a perfect recipe to introduce confidence-building at this symposium.

When thinking about why she decided to apply for the programme, Shelley-Ann listed, “career development, personal development, networking, a discovery of the different leadership types and how they can be used, and to learn what it takes to be a leader as a woman in STEM. The programme really helped with confidence and imposter syndrome.”

And the winner is…

The day culminated with the Research Institute Technician Awards ceremony. Many congratulations to those who won:

Rising Star – Rebecca Orha (Institute of Cancer Research), Edward Hems (John Innes Centre)

Technical Skills Specialist – Richard Pearson (Wellcome Sanger Institute), Kim Findlay (John Innes Centre)

Outstanding Collaborator – Animal technician Conference Team (Babraham Institute), Naomi Wang (John Innes Centre)

Outstanding contribution to Training and Mentoring – Rosie Hillier (Mary Lyon Centre at MRC Harwell), Matthew Bush (John Innes Centre), Hazel Rogers (Wellcome Sanger Institute)

Outstanding Contribution to Outreach and Knowledge Exchange – Petra Korlevic (Wellcome Sanger Institute), Crop Transformation Team (John Innes Centre)

Lifetime Achievement – Derek Davies (Crick Institute)

Overcoming the ‘Imposter Experience’

This segued seamlessly into the next session, which was all about imposter syndrome, referred to as the ‘imposter experience’ by speaker Kate Atkin – a training consultant, facilitator and inspirational speaker with a Master’s in Positive Psychology. The internal feeling of intellectual phoniness despite successes was a feeling that 76 per cent of those in attendance had personally experienced, and 62 per cent felt it was holding them back from opportunities.

When discussing tools and tips for combatting the imposter experience, Kate encouraged attendees to identify and challenge self-talk. For example, someone with the imposter experience might feel they were offered a new job because they were lucky or the interviewers were just being kind. That word – ‘just’, is a common one used by someone feeling like an imposter, according to Kate. “Remove ‘just’ – own it, don’t dismiss it. If you can do it, others can do it too, but you’re the one who is doing it.”

Kate gave additional tips to anyone feeling like an imposter; chat to someone supportive, store positive feedback and find a mentor. And Kate’s advice to managers? “Stop telling staff they’re amazing; tell them why they’re amazing. Over-inflated praise is not helpful; what are the specifics that make something amazing?”

Following Kate’s session, it was time for another feedback update. ‘Inspired’, ‘empowered’ and ‘enthused’ flashed up on the big screen.

Workshops and Career Journeys

After a short break, attendees broke off into different workshops designed to equip them with tools to manage careers, build confidence and create and build productive relationships. The workshops – led by Kate Atkin, Naily Makangu, Susie Edwards and Dr Tracy Bussoli – provided an intimate space for those with shared experiences and emotions to speak openly about personal barriers and discuss methods to overcome them.

It was time to reconvene as a group, and a trio of technical experts took to the stage to talk about their career journeys so far and what their current roles entail. Christophe Galichet (Senior Laboratory Research Scientist, The Crick Institute), Ryan Usher (Electronics Engineer, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology) and Katie O'Fee (Lab Manager, MRC London Institute for Medical Sciences) each delivered a short presentation, and together they demonstrated that there are many diverse routes to gaining skills and navigating career pathways. They showed how skills development, supportive management and emerging opportunities all have a part to play in a flourishing technical career. Confidence is the final piece of the puzzle, and the big question is whether this symposium delivered in helping our technicians and technical experts to grow theirs?

Here’s a few statements from the final request for feedback at the end of the day:

“Today made me realise I’m not alone.”

“It made me see how important networking is and that personal development is welcome within this community.”

“First real experience of a conference; it really stretched me to talk to people I’ve never met, actively listen and understand the career pathways of others. Thanks to all organisers!”

More about our winners....

Petra Korlević - Outreach

People don’t usually get excited about mosquitos, but they do when Petra is around. As well as her technical skills retrieving DNA from historic mosquito collections as a staff scientist in the Lawniczak Group for Evolutionary Genetics at the Sanger Institute, Petra is a hugely talented artist and an energetically imaginative communicator who can bring complex science to life. This year Petra has been a key contributor to seven major engagement projects, personally interacting with hundreds of school pupils, and inspiring the next generation of biologists. She not only illuminates her own work, but has also enabled her colleagues to share their science more effectively through her cartoon insects, illustrated team profiles and personalised science cartoons used both for engagement events and scientific publications.

Hazel Rogers - Training and Mentoring

Hazel has been a Technical Specialist and Scientific Manager in Cellular Operations at the Sanger Institute for four years as a skilled technician, trainer, and mentor. She’s supported the Sanger’s efforts to generate novel organoid biobanks, including a significant contribution to the Human Cancer Models Initiative, an international collaboration to generate and characterise the next-generation of cancer cell models. She has championed our ‘Training Standards’ initiative, which has supported new trainers in the Cellular Operations teams, improved training feedback and developed trainers' skills. She has also championed the Institute's Technician Commitment work by leading activities and encouraging technicians to get involved. Hazel’s abilities as a mentor and a manager are exemplary.

Richard Pearson - Technical Skills

Richard Pearson is a Principal Data Scientist at the Genomic Surveillance Unit, within the Sanger Institute. He’s one of the world’s top technical experts in producing and analysing whole genome sequencing (WGS) data from malaria parsites Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax, taken from field samples. He has clearly driven the efforts of producing analysis-ready genomic data from Plasmodium infections, in a way that is both scalable and reproducible. He’s considered a referent not only by his local peers but also by a wide network of scientists and collaborators. In addition to his key role in producing massive WGS data releases, Richard has been critical to many scientific achievements in malaria genomics. Richard has been also an excellent teacher over the years, always willing to share his knowledge and expertise with anybody interested in learning, irrespectively of position or seniority.

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