Technicians in the Time of Covid: Lab in Lockdown

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In the University of Edinburgh we have more than 1,000 technicians – highly trained and experienced individuals with diverse skills working across all subject areas. Across the UK the technical community has been recognised as being at the forefront of the higher education and research sector’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

At the start of the UK lockdown, we shared stories from our technicians about the experiences at the University, shining a light on the work that they do. Almost five months after we spoke to her, Sarah McCafferty, Research Technician in the Genetics Core at Edinburgh Clinical Research Facility, takes a look back at what it has been like for her to adapt to home working, and returning to the lab during lockdown.

“As a Technician working in the Genetics Core of the Edinburgh Clinical Research Facility I have been back in the lab since April processing samples for the GenOMICC and ISARIC research projects. These two projects are NIHR Urgent Public Health Priority studies for hospitalised patients with COVID-19, with Kenny Baillie as the Principal Investigator. Although this has given me a sense of normality during this very weird time, things have still inevitably had to change and there has been some adjustment required to our new ways of working. For us this has meant working part time from home and part time in the lab, with fewer technicians present in our workspace at any one time, as well as the expected social distancing. Luckily the layout of our lab space seems to have worked somewhat in our favour in this regard.

Blood tubes in freezer racking awaiting DNA extraction.

“To begin with, days in the lab were often quite long, with large numbers of samples requiring DNA and RNA extraction. It was challenging to keep on top of the samples arriving into the lab, running the required extractions and other necessary tasks (so many autoclave runs) while ensuring we were following safe working practices for ourselves and our colleagues, especially with lower staffing levels. We have been so lucky to have our amazing team pull together and chip in wherever they can. As numbers of Covid-19 cases have fallen we have seen fewer samples arriving in our lab, but we’ve been keeping busy performing QC checks on these samples and getting them ready to send to Genomics England (a key partner in both the GenOMICC and ISARIC projects, for whole genome sequencing).

Sarah’s colleague, Katarzyna working with DNA samples in biological safety cabinet.

“Working from home is something that I didn’t have much experience of, but luckily our team had been fairly proactive in getting set up for remote working and testing these systems with a view to reducing staff numbers in the lab before the announcement of lockdown. In the (roughly) three weeks we were all working from home prior to returning to the lab, we were kept busy updating health and safety paperwork and investigating automation options to assist in handling the large number of samples we were expecting to be processing. We were even continuing with our laboratory tech sessions, where members of the team who have particular expertise in the methods we use explain the principles of the procedure and answer any questions through Microsoft Teams (with only minor technical difficulties).

Sarah using liquid handling platform to normalise DNA samples to send away.

“Although this has been a challenging time in some ways, I feel really proud of the contribution the team and I have made to these important research projects and adding to our collective knowledge around this new virus.”

Sarah poses for a quick selfie while working in the Biological Safety Cabinet.

Here at Edinburgh we are signatories of the Technician Commitment bringing visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability to the vital roles that technical staff play in enabling research and innovation, and in ensuring a positive student experience.

The Technician Steering Committee aims to distribute information on these available opportunities to our 1000-strong technical workforce, to celebrate the achievements of technical staff, and to create a visible, connected, community. The Committee has members across the University, and is responsible for focussed Technician Newsletters, career development support for technicians and a Technician Support website.

The Committee is chaired by Natalie Homer, Mass Spectrometry Core Manager. Val Gordon, Technical Officer in Moray House School of Education and Sport, and Technician Commitment Action Plan Coordinator in the Institute for Academic Development, is leading on the development and implementation of the Technician Commitment action plan.

The Committee welcome more stories and suggestions from our technical community so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Natalie or

Photography: Sam Sills; Sarah McCafferty