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The University’s technicians have been sharing details of the work they have undertaken to support the fight against COVID-19 in the newsletter, Technically Speaking.
Director of The Academy, Dr James Howard, said: “For many of us, the reality of our working week is now made up of (seemingly endless!) Zoom and Teams meetings, working in whatever space we can find at home.
“However, this has not been the case for all of our technical staff, many of whom have continued to work on campus, providing critical support to colleagues across the Faculties. Indeed, the last few months have further highlighted the hugely significant role that technicians play in enabling the University to function and excel in so many areas. I know we are all hugely proud of their continued dedication and commitment during this challenging period.”
The newsletter, Technically Speaking, recently profiled a number of technicians and their roles at the University.
Research with Alder Hey
Throughout the pandemic, technical leads in each Institute within Health and Life Sciences have been instrumental in understanding and advising on the operational requirements for all the rapidly initiated high-priority COVID-19 research.
The University was recently ranked third nationally in terms of the amount of COVID-19 research being undertaken but none of this would have been possible without the expert input and support of the University’s technical teams.
Samantha WIlliams and Sarah Northey
Samantha Williams and Sarah Northey, Core Technicians in the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health in the Institute of Life Course and Medical Sciences, have been working to support a COVID-19 research project based at the Institute in the Park laboratories at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.
COVID-19 has been shown to cause more severe disease in older adults and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals, and by contrast, children seem to show mild symptoms of the disease, if any.
The research, supervised by Professor Paul McNamara and Dr Jenny Herbert, utilises differentiated primary human airway epithelial cells isolated from nasal brushings from health volunteers. These cells are the primary target of SARS-CoV-2, and recapitulate the human airway in the laboratory. The cells are being collected from adults and children of different ages and ethnicities to study the differences in SARS-CoV-2 infection capabilities, pathology (AEC damage) and the epithelial immune responses in these different groups.
Protecting the public
Technicians have also been supporting the response to COVID-19 in other ways such as providing vital equipment and supplies. Amy Wood, a Senior Specialist Technician in the Institute of Systems, Molecular and Integrative Biology, said: “I have been producing WHO grade hand sanitiser in the labs for distribution across campus and to local GP surgeries and care homes.
“I have had a wonderfully appreciative response from all who received our in-house sanitiser as I was told they were finding it very difficult to get hold of supplies. I contacted a variety of GP surgery and care home managers and was able to personally deliver litres of sanitiser to their establishments to help keep staff, patients and residents protected from Coronavirus infection.
“I felt proud to be able to provide a small but important service to those who are on the front line of protecting the public during this epidemic.”
PPE for the frontline
Technicians from a number of areas have also been working to manufacture face visors to protect frontline health care workers in local hospitals, care homes and GP surgeries. The work started in the School of Engineering with visors initially being manufactured using 3D printers using an open source design.
Tony Topping, Teaching and Research Technician in the School of Engineering was one of the small team working the project. He says: “We realised that 3D printing alone would not be able to make up the volume of visors required and so came up with a new design to speed up the manufacturing process which used a laser cutter to make the main components, a waterjet cutter to make the visor and hot wire cutter to cut the elastic for the head band.
“We set up a production and assembly line in the School’s Active Learning Lab, optimising the process to eventually be able to produce hundreds of visors a day.
“As demand grew, technicians from Architecture, the Central Teaching Hub and Electrical Engineering joined the team, including a number of technicians from Engineering who set up workshops at home to assemble the components. Unilever offered their assistance by sourcing materials, including industrial size rolls of plastic film and high-volume 3D printing of one of their components.”
The tech team in the Human Anatomy Resource Centre (HARC) have also made hundreds of disposable plastic aprons which have been used in some patient-facing COVID-19 projects and to allow the resumption of phlebotomy for some ongoing research projects.
In 2017 the University signed up to the Technician Commitment, a sector-wide initiative led by the Science Council and supported by the Gatsby Foundation, to address the key challenges facing technical staff working in research. The University is now formulating a new 36-month action plan which will be submitted to the Science Council in March 2021; however, in the last two years significant progress has been made in the areas identified in the Technician Commitment. In particular;
The continued commitment comes at a key time as the demand for technicians is increasing. More than 1.5 million technicians currently work in the UK, which is expected to rise by around 70,000 each year. Vice-chancellors and directors of research institutes from leading institutions across the UK have recognised the need to protect skills across their organisations by utilising and developing technical expertise.
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