When I started working at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) during lockdown earlier this year I was told that if I wanted to get to know the organisation from the inside out, I should speak to Debbie Feather, our Head of Administration and Company Secretary.
Little did I know that I would soon meet Debbie after a belated realisation that the washing machine at my accommodation was entirely coin-operated. Small change, as it turned out, had become an unexpected scarcity during the pandemic. Debbie and her team jumped to the task and pooled their spare change together to help me out.
These are the little, but ultimately significant things that fall into the hands of the Administration team at a busy research laboratory with staff and students from all over the world.
Debbie’s team organised my flights, visa, accommodation, and quarantine food so that I could start my new position at TSL with as little stress as possible. It was her team’s devotion, professionalism and genuine warmth that made me feel even more confident about my move to the UK.
And yet, the role of Administration teams within scientific organisations is rarely highlighted.
I was curious to hear more about Debbie’s journey to Head of Administration at TSL and how she has seen her team grow and develop alongside the Laboratory the last two decades.
“I was actually trained as an entomologist.’ Debbie tells me when I go to meet her in her office, ‘So, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Somewhere along the line I realised taxonomy wasn’t a sustainable career journey for me, and I switched over to database administration within the same laboratory.”
I ask her how it was to see the same organisation from such different perspectives.
“It was insightful.” says Debbie, “Both jobs were challenging in different ways, and I can’t say that one is better than the other. My scientific experience did help me bridge the communication gap between research and administration. We are all working towards the same goal, but that can get obscured by the fact that our daily priorities can be very different, and sometimes even come across as conflicting.
I admit to Debbie that I my understanding of her responsibilities as Head of Administration and Company Secretary is very limited
“It’s my job to make sure that TSL operations run smoothly, that our finances are in order and that our staff and students are properly supported.’ Debbie explains, ‘I also make sure that all these things are done in line with UK law and the other regulations that we are tied to as a charity organisation and research institute. This means I need to deal with a lot of paperwork and ensure that our researchers have completed the necessary paperwork as well.”
It must be challenging to convince researchers to deal with administration when they could be doing exciting research instead, I comment.
“I have to make sure that what I’m asking people to do is absolutely necessary and that I have the facts to back it up. An important part of my job is sifting through the admin and being able to prioritise what is important.”
I ask Debbie what she enjoys most about her role.
“It’s challenging, diverse and I’m constantly learning new things.” she says, “It wasn’t long after I became Head of Administration at TSL that I realized I needed formal training in business management to do my job more effectively. TSL agreed and supported me through my MBA at the University of East Anglia. I’ve also become a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the Chartered Management Institute. Even though I was initially unsure about where I wanted to go with an administrative career, my journey has not lacked in ambition and I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved. TSL is a dynamic research environment with big goals. That means my job is constantly adapting to best suit the needs of the lab. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
When I ask Debbie if she had completely left behind her life as an insect taxonomist, she smiles.
“I still chase the odd butterfly every now and then.”