Five minutes with Laurence Dawkins-Hall - Award Winning Technician, Uni of Leicester - Lab Innovations UK

Five minutes with Laurence Dawkins-Hall – Award Winning Technician, Uni of Leicester

This week we are sharing five minutes with Laurence Dawkins-Hall B.Sc. CBiol, CSci, FIScT (Reg), FRSB , Laurence is an award-winning teaching technician at the University of Leicester. He has previously spoken at Lab Innovations and was shortlisted for the ‘Commitment to Skills and Training’ Lab Award last year!

Ready, set, share!

Can you give us an insight into your career path and how you ended up working in the lab industry?

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a laboratory scientist: At school, the sciences (and maths) were my favourite subjects and, in particular, the books, “Life on Earth” by Sir David Attenborough and “Chance and Necessity” by Jacque Monod (a Nobel prize-winning French biochemist, a contemporary and confidant of Francis Crick and mentor of Rosalind Franklin; of DNA fame) made a seminal impression. I decided at university to study Biomedical Sciences and having gained my degree, I took a job as a lab technician at Barts Cancer Research Institute. My plan was to remain a technician and pick at seminal lab skills in molecular and cell biology, before pursuing a PhD at the University of Oxford. However, “Chance and necessity” of my own put me on a different path: Hitherto, I had always been more interested in Chemistry than biology and quickly realised that I was more interested in the science underpinning techniques like DNA purification than in the implications of the data and the story that was telling. Consequently, having had an uncomfortable time at Oxford, I left, pursued Teacher Training, also at Oxford (PGCE) and then returned to the bench as a lab technician. That was in 1992. Subsequently, I became interested in the emerging science of Automated DNA sequencing: I established a core DNA sequencing facility at the University of Manchester and this provided opportunities to speak about this “Chemistry,” both in the UK and also the US. Building on this portfolio, I landed a job in the US at the New York Genome Institute, which was (then) part of the public consortia sequencing the human genome. Having returned to the UK and specifically a BHF funded hypertension unit at the University Leicester to focus on more targeted gene expression and sequencing projects, designed to elucidate genetic variants that could putatively contribute to high blood pressure. Roll the clock forward another 10 years and analogous laboratory science in university laboratories at Nottingham and Edinburgh (The Roslin Institute, where “Dolly the sheep” was made), I returned to my original lab in Leicester and an antecedent to my current job, about 10 years ago (which is now more teaching focused). This is where my direction of travel changed: I started to realise that the “lot” of a UK technician is not all that it could be. I say “UK technician” because my experiences in the US in 2000 (and indeed Europe, with a brief sojourn in Bavaria in the late 90s) were more favourable: In particular, career structure was poor and what is more had, if anything, got worse since the 90’s. Coincidentally, at that juncture, an initiative came into being called the Technician Commitmentwhose remit was (and is) to improve the recognition, career prospects and job retention for technicians in the HE, FE and industrial sectors. In short, I became Chartered (CSci) with the Science Council and started to talk at public events about the plight of Technicians within the context of the commitment. That was five years ago and since that time, I have gone on to gain a charter with the Royal Society of Biology (Chartered Biologist, CBiol) and now talk throughout the UK (including Ireland), formerly for the IST and latterly for the RSB, Science Council and National Technician Development Centre. This body of work has resulted in elected Fellowships with both the IST (FiScT) and the RSB (FRSB). Furthermore, I have been a finalist for and won a number of Prizes, including a Lab Innovations prize (2023) cf. runner up in the category of “Commitment to Skills and Training”. Currently, I write for and represent the RSB, Science Council and NTDC at bespoke and technician-focused events: Some of my materials have even found their way on to the “Lab Live” materials for Lab Innovations themselves!! In many ways, this has taken me away from bench Science and practical chemistry and returned me to my other principal passion, which is mentoring and guiding technicians at the beginning of their careers, as somebody now in the twilight years of their own career.

What is something that keeps you motivated within the industry or what influences your decisions on how you work?

As discussed in my previous answer, I am cognisant of the fact that the plight of technicians in all sectors throughout the UK (but particularly Academia) has deteriorated since I started as a technician in 1987. Back then, Technicians were recognised and treated as degree-level scientists and were afforded opportunities to travel to conferences, engage in autonomous research, teach technical skills to students and be published in association with academic colleagues. This has changed since about 2000 and currently, many technicians feel bereft and undervalued. Many now simply clean up for students and academic colleagues and consequently opportunities to present their own scientific work at conferences or be recognised in publications has concomitantly decreased: The commitment framework itself has highlighted this tendency by referring to technicians as the “Cinderella’s of the laboratory”. The good news is that, with inception of the Technician Commitment there could, in the next five years, be a restitution of the “Good old days”. Supporting the Technician commitment and specifically the recognition of technicians via Professional Registration is now my primary motivation (as an ageing Technician, who has experienced Halcyon days at the beginning of my career) within a laboratory setting. As talked about below, this morphing of job roles, at the very least, has been exacerbated by disenchanted technicians leaving the role and the progressive shortfall not being repleted by aspiring young scientists choosing to enter the role(s) culminating in an overall lack of manpower. Consequently, with a paucity of technical personnel, they are now obliged to focus primarily on “structural support” and have become de facto porters and cleaners, especially in view of the current trend to lay off this group of Professional services staff, in the interest of “cost-cutting efficiencies”: Therein lies the need for a “Technician Commitment”.

Where do you see either you or the future of the lab industry going?

In a personal sense, I am reaching the end of the road and will therefore complete my career in Leicester, supporting students and postdocs in the laboratories but, of more significance and outside Leicester as well, continue to promote change and better working conditions for up-and-coming techs under the auspices of the “Technician Commitment”. To do this, I will continue to work with organizations like the Science Council, Royal Society of Biology and NTDC; No doubt, further presentations and supporting materials for Lab innovations will be part of that mix.

To conclude my musings and link into where I think the Laboratory industry is heading, increasingly, within my own field of Biomedical sciences, laboratory research will become more patient (as opposed to general model) centred and drugs will increasingly become “smart,” bespoke and rooted in laboratory derived patient genomic, metagenomic, proteomic and metabolomic data; especially applicable to multi-faceted, non-Mendelian diseases, exemplified by Cancer(s), cardiovascular and neurodegenerative conditions. For that to continue to happen, however, more skilled technicians will be required to operate technical platforms, required for patient-focused personalised diagnosis. As things stand, technicians are “taking flight”, in part due to issues touched upon (which the Commitment is designed to redress). Thus, if the “Technician Commitment” is fully realised, this “brain drain” will start to be ameliorated and skilled technical operatives will play a vital role in this evolution of lab-driven medicine (from “Bench to bedside”). This cannot happen quickly enough: As I talked about in a presentation I provided for Lab Innovations (cf. “21st Century Technicians: Challenges, Insights and Innovation”) and subsequent Newsletter piece (cf. Industry insight, “ 5 Minutes with Laurence Dawkins Hall”, Lab Innovations, October 2020), “With 50,000 technicians retiring every year and an estimated need for another 700,000 technicians by 2030, the UK is heading towards an ‘existential crisis’ in terms of a labour shortfall”. Unless we start to invest in the training and career structure of skilled technical operatives, this attrition is likely to continue. It could ultimately impact the UK’s aspirations to transition to a knowledge-based economy, in line with economies like Singapore. If you want London to become “Singapore on Thames” and for this model to be copied UK wide, it is crucial that technicians are trained, rewarded and valued. As a colleague of mine recently quipped, “The more time I spend as a technician, the more I feel undervalued and dumbed down.” (See also, “Give technicians the recognition they deserve”, Chemistry World, RSC, May 2023). Give Technicians meaningful jobs in the lab industry and everybody will feel the benefit.

Thank you for your five minutes Laurence!


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