The Evolution and Laboratory of the Technician.

First in a series of posts on life after an undergraduate degree, Alison Boyce gives an account of the life of a scientific technician.


Science, engineering, and computing departments in universities employ technicians. Anyone working or studying in these areas will have dealt with a technician at some point but most will be unaware of a technician’s route into the position and their full role in education and research.

Technical posts are varied e.g. laboratory, workshop, computer. Funding for technical support is afforded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to provide assistance in undergraduate teaching. This is the primary role of technical officers (TOs) after which the Head of Discipline or Chief Technical Officer (CTO) decide further duties.



Until the early 1990s individuals joined the university as trainee technicians. Many came through the ranks starting as laboratory attendants, a position which still exists. Trainee technicians would spend one day a week over four years working towards a City and Guilds’ qualification. At this time the occupation was mostly hands on with little theoretical work. Many started young by today’s standards (starting at 14 years old was not uncommon), and they continued to study well past diploma level. Changing the nature of the role so much that nowadays almost all technical officers have primary degrees and come with a more academic view of the position.

In 2008, it was agreed that incoming technical officers must hold at least a primary degree in order to work at Trinity College Dublin. Those looking for promotion to Senior TO would require a Master’s and to CTO, a PhD. Those already in the system would not be penalised, local knowledge and experience are recognised equivalents and rightly so. This agreement gave rise to the job title changing from technician to technical officer reflecting the removal of the apprenticeship system. Many still use the old name but it doesn’t cause offence. These qualifications represent minimum requirements. TOs constantly train, learning new technologies and procedures. It is difficult to resist the temptation of further study when you work in an educational environment.


From graduate to TO

Gaining experience in medical, industrial, or other educational laboratories is most important.  Further study in areas general to laboratory work are also advantageous e.g. first aid, web design, or statistics. Sometimes researchers move into a technical role temporarily and find they enjoy it so stay on. Applying to a discipline with some relationship to your qualifications makes sense; a physicist may not enjoy working in a biological lab. Having come though the university system many graduates would be familiar with teaching laboratories and their departments. Seeing a place for yourself in the future of a discipline is vital for career progression as it is seldom you will see a TO moving from one department to another. It should be possible to adapt the role to your skills or study to meet those required for promotion.


BioLab Teaching Facilities


Day to day

All labs/disciplines differ but certain core responsibilities fall to the technical staff at some point. Running practicals is the biggest responsibility during term time with design and development out of term. Some departments in science and engineering have lab and field based classes. Various modules require field sampling in preparation for the practical. Getting out on the road can be very satisfying even if you are at the mercy of nature!


If you consider what it takes to run a home you’ll have an idea of what a TO does to maintain a lab/department. Ordering supplies and equipment. When something breaks, repair it or have it mended in a cost effective way. Logging, maintaining and installing equipment, health and safety information and implementation, chemical stock control, running outreach programmes, planning and managing building refurbishment, organising social events, updating the discipline’s web pages, assisting undergraduate student projects and much more.


These are just the basic duties and do not describe the essence of technical work at university level. Firstly it is to guide, instruct, and assist in scientific matters. An analytical and practical mind is necessary. You must have a willingness to facilitate the design and execution of projects in teaching and research. If you are eager to help and learn, it’s the perfect job for you. The information base for many materials and methods is the technical staff. Local knowledge and an ability work in consultation with other departments is often key to completing a project. Ideally, when a researcher leaves the university, their skills should pass to a TO keeping those abilities in-house. Imparting them to the next generation.


If you’re very lucky, you’ll be in a discipline that encourages you to take part in research and further study. It’s wise to check where a discipline or school stands before considering work in that area. Career opportunities open up in such disciplines. CTO Specialist is a promotion given to someone with expertise of a specialist nature e.g. IT, histology. Experimental Officer is a post created to further research in a discipline and often requires some teaching.


Overall, the position is what you make of it. If you strive to improve and adapt, you’ll find it immensely rewarding. Many practical classes repeat annually but on a daily basis you could be doing anything, anywhere. Being a technical officer is stimulating and constantly changing, keeping your brain and body active. You won’t be sitting for too long when you’re surrounded by young adults in need of advice and equipment. The relationship is symbiotic, your knowledge and their enthusiasm eventually gets any problem sorted.


Author: Alison Boyce, a.boyce[at]tcd[dot]ie

Alison Boyce has worked as a technical officer at Trinity College Dublin for over 20 years. In that time, she has acted as a master-puppeteer in seeing countless undergraduate projects through to completion. Her in-depth knowledge of technical, theoretical, and practical aspects of natural sciences has made her one of the most influential figures in the history of this department.

The editorial team thanks her for taking the time to write this piece. 


The expanding tropics 

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 16.30.27

It was a spring day in April 2004 when Qiang Fu first noticed the anomoly in the data. On either side of the equator – in a belt strecthing from 15 to 45 degrees latitude – the lower atmosphere was warming more than anywhere else on the planet. Fu, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, was stumped.


It wasn’t until a year later that Fu realized what he had discovered: evidence of a rapid expansion of the tropics, the region that encircles Earth’s waist like a green belt. The heart of the tropics is lush, but the northern and southern edges are dry. And these parched borders are growing — expanding into the subtropics and pushing them toward the poles.

The expansion of the tropics is the subject of my latest feature, which appears in a recently published edition of Nature. You can read the full feature online at (behind a paywall).  But here, I’ll give you a taste of what it’s about.

In the past ten years – since Fu first published his discovery in the journal Science – scientists have been turned their attention to this subject in a big way – there have been lots of scientific papers, theories and measurements – yet it’s had surprisingly little coverage by the media.

I’d thought about writing on this topic for a while and the time seemed right when I noticed that a bunch of 50 or so scientists were meeting last summer in New Mexico to trash this topic out. The meeting itself wasn’t open to the media, which was unfortunate, but I‘ve since managed to talk to a lot of the people who gathered for five days in that hot conference room in Santa Fe last summer.

I wanted to know answers to the same questions as those scientists, and those conversations would form the basis of my article. I’ve been writing about climate change for more than ten years now, and so I’m used to a lot of uncertainty in science. It was good preparation for writing this piece! On tropical expansion, still so many questions remain unanswered, such as how fast is it happening, what’s causing it and where are the future boundaries of the tropics likely to be? And importantly, why should we care?

Well, you’ll have to read the feature to get an answer to all of those questions, but I’ll answer a couple of them for you here.

How fast is it happening? Estimates range from less than half a degree of latitude per decade to several degrees of latitude per decade over the last few decades. At the more extreme end, that’s like moving London to the latitude of Rome over the course of a century. Pretty big deal. But it’s worth pointing out that some of the more recent estimates have been more moderate; they’re still bad news for cities such as San Diego, though, that would experience a big impact even with a one degree latitude shift in the edge of the tropics.


As to why we should care, well there are lots of reasons: aside from the potential water crisis for major cities such as San Diego, Perth and Santiago. tropical expansion could wreak havoc for some of the world’s most fertile fishing grounds, global grain production could shrink and biodiversity, especially at the southern tips of the African and Australian continents, (and they are astoundingly diverse) will suffer.


Now, if you’re interested in geeking out on all the details (and, in my view, reading the real story, which is about what is happening way up in the atmosphere near the Equator), check out the full story on Nature:


author: Olive Heffernan (@O_Heffernan)

image: Amy Toensing/National Geographic Creative

Evading Extinction

The black footed ferret

It’s a sombre statistic: year on year, we lose up to 100,000 species. That’s somewhere between 0.01 and 0.1 percent of all species on the planet (we don’t know the exact rate because we don’t know exactly how many species exist; it could be 2 million or 100 million). The rate is thought to be at least 1000 times what it would be in the absence of the deforestation, poaching and pollution we are responsible for.


But despite this gloomy outlook, prospects are improving for some species that have narrowly escaped extinction. That’s partly thanks to ongoing success in breeding species that are extinct in the wild, and reintroducing them.


I’m Olive Heffernan, a freelance science writer who covers the environment for outlets such as New Scientist, Nature, Nature Climate Change (of which I’m the former Chief Editor) and Scientific American. I’m also currently Science Writer in Residence in TCD’s School of Natural Sciences. While I’m here, I’ll be blogging from time to time about the topics I’m reporting and writing on.


My latest article, published in New Scientist, reports on the animals that are scrambling back from the brink of extinction. Some, such as the black-footed ferret, were once presumed extinct in the wild.


The ferret’s story is an interesting one. Once native to the North American Prairies, these cute nocturnal creatures were essentially wiped out by the arrival of European settlers in the 1860s. As they began to cultivate the plains and to breed cattle, the farmers started to poison prairie dogs – the ferrets’ favoured food – because they worried that their cattle would break their legs by stepping in the burrows. What’s more, ferrets were especially susceptible to plague brought to the US during the early 1900s on trading ships from the Far East. By the late 1950s, the ferret seemed a distant memory and by the late 1970s it was considered extinct.


But in 1981, a working dog on a farm in Wyoming brought home a surprising kill – a black-footed ferret! The US Fish and Wildlife Service subsequently recovered 18 live ferrets and eventually – after a few failed attempts – they bred some in captivity and reintroduced ferrets into the native habitat. By 2008, the wild population had reached around 1000 individuals again, but from 2008 to 2015, the number of breeding adults declined by 40%, due to plague.


Thanks to sustained efforts by US Fish and Wildlife, together with the World Wildlife Fund and Defenders of Wildlife, 300 individuals exist successfully at 6 sites on public and private lands from Mexico to Canada. The goal is to establish 3,000 breeding adults throughout their former range, at 30 different sites.


The main challenge will be keeping the ferret populations plague-free. The ferret’s story is a good example of how conservation efforts are often a long, hard slog over many decades. As Mike Hoffmann of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission, says in my New Scientist story “Success takes many, many years to achieve. And all the major conservation success stories, whether it is the black-footed ferret or Arabian oryx, have taken decades of hard conservation work on the ground and continued effort.”


You can read about the recovery of the Scimatar-horned oryx, the blue-eyed black lemur, and a range of other species in my article, which is online here (behind a paywall) and also in the current issue of the print magazine. There’s a very nice photo gallery of species bouncing back from the brink in the online version.


Author: Olive Heffernan,

Twitter: O_Heffernan.


Image Credit: Andrew Harrington –