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Being a technician at the National Graphene Institute

Everyone has heard of graphene. From the award of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics to Professor Sir Andre Geim and Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov for their work in isolating graphene at the University of Manchester while experimenting with graphite, to the current pace and energy being put into identifying and fast-tracking its applications to market, this is one discovery where the UK intends to reap the economic benefits and not be left on the starting blocks.

IOP Graphene brochure

So, what is it like to work as a technician at the UK’s brand new National Graphene Institute? We catch up with John Whittaker in his busy schedule as NGI’s technical services manager.

John, what exactly is the National Graphene Institute?
The NGI building at The University of Manchester opened in March as the home for collaboration between academics researching the exciting applications of graphene and other 2D materials and the industry partners who can catapult these ideas to market. The NGI is multidisciplinary, covering research areas as diverse as microelectronics and composites, always with a view to commercial upscalability. While the NGI is academic-led with industry partnership, we are building a second collaborative centre right now, the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, which will be industry-led with academic partnership – a full continuum for fast-tracking the best ideas to market.

What do your technicians do at the NGI?
We have seven technicians here. They play a hugely important role in support of the experimental officers and researchers who carry out intensive research, device fabrication and prototype production, and they tend to work across a range of disciplines: physics, electronics, chemistry.

The NGI’s high-powered electron microscope, for example, needs specialist calibration, regular checks on alignment, routine maintenance of pumps, and other technical support to ensure good image resolution. Looking after specialist equipment like this is the technician’s role.

Raman spectroscopy analysis is another activity carried out here. The Raman spectrometer has an array of lasers, and the technicians are responsible for the daily calibration checks of all of these, using standard samples to ensure that the experimental officers and researchers obtain reproducible results. The technicians also handle the supply of specialist consumables and effective waste disposal.

When you have technicians who understand not only which buttons to press but also the underlying physics, those are the technicians who are really valuable for prototyping and also for when things go wrong. They can diagnose the faults and find ways to resolve them. This is especially important as equipment performance has to be maintained at all times.

A lot of the equipment maintained by NGI technicians is the very latest in nanoscale technology. Put all this in the context of a cleanroom (with an atmosphere more than a million times purer than air), which is where some of our technicians operate, and the stakes are raised even higher.

It sounds like cutting edge stuff. How important is it that your technicians work in a professional way?
Absolutely essential. Reliability and repeatability are key requirements for the experimental officers and researchers, so technicians need to follow the right protocols and meet high standards. It’s a busy lab environment, so close supervision isn’t possible. The technicians have to take personal responsibility to carry out their work correctly and safely, while making good use of resources, and problem-solving along the way. We ask a lot of them.

You started out as a technician yourself. How did you get to where you are today?
I left school with A-levels in physics, maths and chemistry to work as a lab technician in quality assurance at an independent company in the paper industry. The company was very diverse, and I soon understood the principles of operation of the lab equipment, so, after one year as a lab tech, I moved into maintenance and repair while also studying for an HND.

After three years, I moved on to a scientific services company, where I spent 18 years in roles that progressed up through technician, engineering technician, engineering and development, and finally engineering management. I also took the opportunity to study part-time for a degree while working there.

My next five years were at Gatan, a worldwide specialist supplier for scientific equipment for the electron-microscopy industry, where I continued with equipment development, service support and project management.

With such a broad base and wide knowledge of lots of different types of equipment, I was ideally placed to join the NGI. I joined 18 months ago, before the building was opened, so it was great to see that come to fruition. In my current role, I am overall technical services manager within the building and lead the team of technicians alongside the cleanroom manager who has specific responsibility to oversee the cleanroom.

How do you feel about the RSciTech and RSci registrations?
They are a good idea. We are just coming to the end of a recruitment round. If an applicant had a professional registration like this from a well-recognised institution, and backed up with the right underlying knowledge, it would be powerful evidence of their professional skills. I’d also look favourably on any of my technicians who took the initiative to develop themselves in this way. It is certainly a factor that can make someone stand out when promotion or other opportunities come up. My technicians tend to have lots of experience and some either have or are working towards a degree, so the ability to progress from Registered Science Technician to Registered Scientist is attractive. I imagine it would also be of interest more widely for the many technicians working all over the University of Manchester.

Which of your achievements are you most proud of at the NGI?
Oh, it’s hard to choose just one thing. I’m simply proud to be part of the NGI team, using my skills to contribute to the wider programme and help realise benefits for the long term.