Image credits: Burcu Bronner Anar / Wellcome Sanger Institute
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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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!”