Image credit: Laura Durrant

Categories: Sanger Life19 July 2023

Inspiring tomorrow’s scientists by battling with pipettes

When envisioning a career in science, many young minds naturally jump towards becoming doctors, or engineers. However, there is a significant and often less visible group of professionals without whom the engine of scientific progress would grind to a halt – technicians.

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The Technicians gallery at the Science Museum in London aims to showcase technical careers. It is a fully interactive, hands-on exhibit, highlighting the vital and varied roles of technicians across sectors – from genomics to space travel - through engaging workshop activities.

Laura Durrant, an Advanced Research Assistant at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, is running hands-on activities at the gallery. Through the popular game of Battleships, Laura has been bringing her work in DNA sequencing laboratories to life, inspiring young minds to try their hand at a career they may have never envisioned before.

We sat down with Laura to hear about her involvement in the gallery, why she thinks engagement initiatives like this are important, and what she hopes pupils visiting the museum will gain.

Hi Laura. Tell us what you are doing with the Science Museum.

I’ve been volunteering to be a part of the David Sainsbury Technicians gallery. It is a way to give some exposure to a variety of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers to local youth groups and schoolchildren from different areas.

We have created 40-minute long workshops and hands-on activities related to our careers. I am helping kids to do micropipetting! I'm basing it on the Battleships game where they give each other co-ordinates, and then they pipette liquids into the coordinates in their 96-well plates.

How has it been going?

It’s gone really well! For my first volunteer day, we had a school group of around twenty 13-14 year olds. They were really curious and started grabbing the micropipettes and test tubes as soon as they sat down.

To start I told them a bit about me, what I do in my role and then gave a micropipette demonstration. Then they got stuck into the pipetting activity which got a bit messy, but it looked like they were having fun! They created all sorts of colourful patterns.

The next workshop was a bit different as it was during the school holidays. This meant adjusting my activity for the younger children. We had loads of families come by and try their hand at the micropipettes - even the parents. The museum staff told me they received lots of good feedback from the parents, so the day was a huge success.


Painting of a heart in a 96-well plate, using coloured liquids

What made you get involved?

I think it was mostly my experience exploring STEM careers at school. I was always interested in science to some extent, but it can be difficult to know what opportunities are out there. At first I really wanted to be a doctor but as time went by, I realised I wanted to take a different approach to helping towards better human health.

I want to encourage young people that may (or may not!) be curious about it to consider exploring what a career in STEM could look like.

For example, I think it is often forgotten when you are at school revising that working in a lab is quite hands-on. Giving pupils the opportunity to see you are not buried in textbooks but learning how to use key techniques means some realise it might be something they want to learn more about. That is where Battleships came in!

Do you think there are any other misconceptions about a career in STEM?

I would say you don't always have to be someone who excels incredibly well academically. I personally had a bit of a hard time during my A levels and I remember thinking at the time, “Oh no, maybe I'm not meant to be a scientist. Maybe I'm not cut out for this.” Actually, given the right opportunities and being in the right environment, the setback actually helped me develop into the scientist I am today.

What do you hope people will take away from their visit to the gallery?

I hope there will be some who find themselves surprised at how much they enjoy it, or have a realisation that, “Oh, actually, maybe this is something that I could be interested in as a career.”

I think also when considering that age group, the chance to see across the entire gallery of technicians that not one person's career journey is the same as someone else's is really important. They can see that while some might take a more linear approach, others figure out what works for them after much trial and error or kind of “fall” into a job they love.


A day in the life of a cell technician: CRISPR, teamwork, and character cells

As the Sanger Institute reopened after COVID, many of our technicians picked up their research from where they left off. We spoke to four of them about life in the cell labs

What is your day-to-day role at the Sanger Institute, when you’re not demo-ing battleship pipetting at the museum?

I am an advanced research assistant in DNA pipelines. Pipelines in this case means the process of getting from a sample – that might be a piece of skin tissue, for example – at one end, all the way through to the genome data at the other end. Different laboratory processes, as well as software and computational processes, are involved in the whole pipeline. Most of my day consists of DNA preparation as part of the short read team. Instead of reading the entire genetic code of an organism at once, short read sequencing reads small fragments, like short sentences, providing a faster and more efficient way to learn about the genes and how they work.

We actually have quite a lot of elements of R&D (research and development) in our work so we often get to work on new and upcoming projects.

I work with samples from a range of projects. That might be malaria parasites from our partners in African countries, or we might have human tissue samples from a biopsy, for example.

What's the best part of your job?

Being able to do so much non-standardised work. I enjoy that every day is different. Which can also be the most challenging thing about my role! We are always looking for new ways to adapt our processes to make them better or to accommodate for samples that might need some bespoke processing and how to integrate those processes as efficiently as we can.


Painting of a tree in a 96-well plate, using coloured liquids

Now for some final questions. If you could time travel anywhere, where would you go?

I would go back to the building of the pyramids of Giza. I just want to know how they did it. It is thought that the pyramids were built to align with certain constellations in the sky.

Is there a word or phrase that is overused in your team?

Something we've been saying recently is ‘jiggery bespokery’. Because we do a lot of non-standard work, it's almost like we wave our magic wands, and try and do our best to make it happen.

And is there anything surprising that you have learnt recently?

My answer actually relates to the pyramids! I heard this fact the other day that the time between the building of the pyramids of Giza to Cleopatra being a Pharaoh of Egypt is a longer period of time than between the Cleopatra reigning, and the invention of the iPhone. It is crazy to see how far we are now with technologies.

Find out more

Laura is part of the Technician Commitment initiative, which is a UK-wide scheme to recognise and celebrate the work of technical staff. The Sanger Institute is a signatory of the Technician Commitment, and staff are supported to progress in technical careers. Find out more on our Technician Commitment careers page.

Find out more about science activities for the public, and how you can get involved, on the Wellcome Connecting Science website.