“It was important that we found a safe way to continue working.”
Dr Rob Fowler, Head of Technical Services for Life Sciences at the University of Sussex, is among those helping to get the campus open again safely during the Covid-19 pandemic.
My job is to manage all the technicians for the School of Life Sciences and ensure that technical services are provided for research and teaching. There are 120 research and core technicians — 60 of whom are in Life Sciences. This includes the technicians who support the research labs and teaching labs and help deliver the teaching practicals for students.
When campus closed because of Covid-19, we still needed to keep many of the practical experiments going, especially those that involved growing live cells. Some researchers had projects that had a certain end date and it would have cost a significant amount of money to stop and restart, so it was important that we found a safe way to continue working.
I was on the Covid-19 task force, which was really helpful because we could bring everyone together across the University to a point where we could talk and discuss how to help local health services, especially when it came to donating Personal Protection Equipment [PPE]. We were able to look at the supplies across campus and work out how we could donate face masks and gloves without there being a detriment to the staff on campus who also needed it.
The biggest issue was deciding who would have access to the buildings. That took quite a lot of organisation. The moment that we decided on who had access, we had to think about what a reopening would look like, and what rules or policies we needed to put in place in order to do that.
We now have 300 researchers back — in shift patterns and only in areas where we have generated plans. We carried out risk assessments and have taken detailed information about what they are doing and when they are doing it. It’s really controlled at the moment. We tied our phasing system into the University’s business resumption and recovery plan.
One of the biggest battles has been trying to interpret the government’s advice as it is published and how it relates to our work. Whenever any announcement is made about face masks or going back to work, staff and students are quite rightly keen to find out if, how and when this will impact on their work and study. We are committed to ensuring a return to work in our buildings is done so in a safe way and we will adapt alongside government guidance. It’s an invite to return currently. No one is duty bound to return.
Managing people’s expectations as well as their concerns has been a real struggle, because obviously everyone is really worried. There’s a serious virus going round that’s a threat to life, but there are also serious consequences for those trying to carry out research. If someone said to me while I was doing my PhD that I would be unable to do any work for two months in the middle of my third year, it would have completely thrown my plans out of the window.
I came here in 2014 as a research technician. I had finished my PhD in ecology and pollination — looking at how wild bees are affected by urban vs rural landscapes — at Birmingham and came on a six-month contract, working as a research technician studying bees with Dr Ellen Rotheray and Professor Dave Goulson.
I grew up in South London and worked in a garden centre that had a nature reserve while I was still at school. That broadened my interest in wildlife and nature, and it went from there all the way up to a PhD. I didn’t think I was academic. I went to Plumpton College to do two years of a foundation degree course in arboriculture. I find trees really fascinating — which then fed into a third year at the University of Brighton, where I graduated with a degree in ecology and biogeography.
You can become academic very quickly if you find something that you are passionate about, because you gravitate towards looking at the finer details. I try to do a small amount of research as well as my day job, including supervising project students and trying to publish a paper now and again. I am keeping it ticking along. The research side is enjoyable, but I can see that the work academics have to do to balance everything is huge.
My job is a really good use of my skills and abilities. I like planning and organisation and communicating with people, making sure they are all on board. I really enjoy that side of it. I didn’t really appreciate just how crucial technician roles were until I became one. So much goes on behind the scenes to provide an efficient, high-level service. It’s one of the cogs in the great machine that is the university. There’s a huge amount of knowledge in the technicians in the school and university, and they are very dedicated to their roles.
I love the community at Sussex. The beautiful campus brings you here. But it’s the people you work with, who are very supportive, that gets you to stay. Academia and teaching is not the easiest area to work in now, especially since it has become a business-based system. But everyone is working towards the same aim. We’re all trying to make everyone’s life a little easier.
Interview by Jacqui Bealing