TSL excited about T levels

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Last year, The Sainsbury Laboratory welcomed its first two T level placements from City College Norwich. Both Francis and Kai were in their 2nd year of Laboratory Sciences and quickly integrated into the TSL community. Our lab's support groups had a fantastic time hosting these enthusiastic new minds and experiencing their fresh perspectives.

We believe these T levels could play a valuable role in ensuring the future sustainability of technical skills across UK research institutes.

In recent years, many research technician posts have been funded only through grants on a fixed-term basis, and as a consequence those jobs tend to go to new graduates who would then be in those roles maybe only for three or four years and then move into other areas of employment.

TSL’s Laboratory Manager, Simon Foster, says “Until now there wasn't really a direct route for technicians to learn how to be technicians and to pick up those skills from school and through into university. It's just very much an academic route in terms of science, and we wanted to support the people that are interested in science that maybe don't want to go down that route.”

This is one of the reasons TSL has been so supportive of the Technician Commitment, which was drafted in response to a growing concern that valuable technical skills were being lost as support staff retired. Due to the lack of formal technical qualifications in the UK, it was becoming clear that technical expertise needed more visibility, recognition and career development through professional registration and clear, documented career pathways. This would help ensure the future sustainability of technical skills across research institutes.

This sustainability of technical skills is one of the key areas The Sainsbury Laboratory committed to improve on when we signed the Technician Commitment in 2017.

Simon believes that T level training forms a crucial part of this action as it can allow us to access a group of people that could become genuinely interested in pursuing technician careers and help them to build a strong foundation of skills. These highly qualified technicians would not only be of huge value to UK Research and Development sectors, but could also have more opportunities for successful and fulfilling careers.

“I'm hopeful that the T level can be a qualification that people are really proud of.” says Nick Talbot, Executive Director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, “A career in technical services can be so rewarding and these people are totally essential to everything we're trying to do in science.”

The Sainsbury Laboratory has always prided itself in producing excellent research. It is without a doubt that the Laboratory’s success stems out of a strong foundation of highly skilled technical staff who tirelessly facilitate our experiments.

“At The Sainsbury Laboratory we offer a lot of support to the research groups.” says Simon, “Laboratory support can be a very broad ranging role, but we also have more specialist support groups such as synthetic biology and tissue culture and transformation. Even though T level student placements are only 2 months long, we tried to ensure that they were hosted by each of these groups to gain exposure to the diversity of technical roles that could be available to them.”

According to Nick, it’s becoming quite rare to have people who are well qualified across a whole broad range of technical areas. He believes that this level of qualification would enable them ultimately to take on more senior technician type roles and progress much further to become laboratory superintendents, senior technicians, because they'll have that broad range of skills from the very start of their career and then begin to specialise afterwards.

TSL’s HR Manager, Kim Wood, said that coordinating these placements with City College Norwich has been a very positive experience and her team looks forward to hosting more students.

One might expect that it would be difficult for T level students to integrate in such professional, specialist environments, but Kim says this was not the case for TSL.

“The teams have really taken them under their wing and just accepted them as they would any other team member. It’s been really encouraging to see.”

Francis Aclan (left) and Kai Potter-Smith (right) were able to learn valuable techniques in the lab in the short time that they were here.

Reflecting on his experience as a student placement at TSL, Kai said that he learned a lot about biology, mainly plant genetics and the transformation of plants. He describes how they learned to make competent cells, how a PCR works, and all the science for media services, tissue cultures and synthetic biology.

“I think it’s really helped my confidence in the lab.,” says Kai, “Beforehand with schools and college we covered very basic principles in science and it wasn’t always that engaging. But the stuff we’ve done here, working in a real world with the real people and real experience, has felt more impactful because we’re given the opportunity to achieve actual results.

His fellow student, Francis, says, “I feel like it’s taught me stuff I will need to know going forward in my career, just by being in a professional environment.”

Francis continues, “It felt like a natural progression of what we had already covered in college. It was really nice knowing that some of the work we did in the lab were things that they actually needed, and that we could contribute to the science being done.”

Asked about their next steps, Francis shared that he was interested in getting a job as a lab technician and that he might consider pursuing further qualifications at university.

Kai responded that he’s hoping to take a gap year after this course and then going to university.

“I want to pursue where I could potentially go with my current qualifications because I would very much like to work in a lab again, especially this one, because I’m now familiar with this lab and I very much like the work that we do here.”

Francis agreed, “I’d also like to be back here at some point.”

For the team at TSL, these comments confirm that our first T-level placements were a great success.

Nick emphasises that we really need people who see this as a career path.

"If TSL can be an exemplar of this and we can help build that sort of community of T level students, then we'll do everything we can to make that happen.”