UCL Career Frameworks


Education - Technician

Martyn Towner, Natural Sciences Technician, Department of Chemistry

Martyn Towner
I’m a Natural Sciences Technician and I’ve worked in the Chemistry Teaching labs for just under a decade. My role mainly focuses on supporting the delivery of the laboratory practical classes as part of the technical team but also to take lead on technical support for Third year Organic/Inorganic modules along with some Post Graduate modules. I’m also responsible for maintaining spectroscopic instrumentation within the Teaching labs (including training provision, sample preparation and troubleshooting) as well as providing induction, training and troubleshooting on the departmental XRD instrument. I also manage an instrument booking system used for both teaching and research supporting specific requirements or adaptions per instrument.

I went to college to do my A-levels and after not getting into the university I hoped for, was offered the chance to apply for a technician role. I supported the practical classes with preparation of chemicals, cleaning glassware supporting the lab space in the sports centre. I spent two years at the college before going to study Chemistry at university where I achieved a 1st class degree. In the weeks after exams but before results were made available, I wondered what I should do. I initially wanted to be a teacher and if not, an industrial chemist but found it hard to find suitable roles and I wanted a break from studying. I looked back to being a technician and after applying for a few places, I managed to get the Natural Sciences role at UCL starting Sept 2013 at a Grade 5 position. 

Since then, I’ve discovered my passion for education and helping others, my role has developed from simply cleaning benches and helping students with equipment issues to being responsible for certain module delivery and having direct impact on discussions relating to lab organisation and implementation. I was regraded to a Grade 6 in August 2017 and become responsible for the implementation (from the technical side) of the new Third Year Organic/Inorganic labs. This involved adapting experiments to suit provisions in the lab, chemical purchases, lab layout as well as equipment availability. Over the last few years my role has substantially grown in terms of complexity, responsibility and input. I am involved throughout the entire process of the lab development. This includes advising on experiment suitability, safety, and organising lab classes (reviewing student groups with respect to experiments etc). This increase in involvement stems from 2020 where I proposed how labs could occur in a COVID suitable environment. After COVID we’ve had an increase in student numbers and once again I was singled out as the person who will ensure the labs can be run smoothly and to provide solutions to issues regarding experiments. 

Not only have I dramatically increased my input and support for lab classes I have also provided innovative ideas to improve the student experience, sustainability and the safety processes in the lab. I’ve developed digital NMR submissions to reduce errors and allow students to get their data via email. I’ve created Standard Operating procedure template and have supported the technical team in utilising them and improving overall safety procedures within the lab. I have had several successful projects that positively impacts student experience and sustainability such as implementing a water chiller system for rotary evaporators that reduce dramatically the amount of Dry Ice being used and improved solvent collect that would otherwise enter the atmosphere.

My advice to those looking to enter the technical field is simply to be passionate about what you do and understand the impact you can have. Students often rely on the support of technical staff to guide them through processes or understanding the techniques. I feel this is because, as technical staff, we are invested in ensuring students get the most out of their practical time, we put a lot of effort in setting it up! More than that though, at least for me, I want to students to come out of their degree trained in a variety of techniques and instrumentation with the confidence to use them. Being a technician is like being a teacher without all the marking! You really can have a positive impact of the student’s experiences which will last with them throughout their career. Who knows, maybe the support shown to them helps inspire them to support others.

What’s next for me? It’s 2023 and I’m currently in the School of Pharmacy on secondment learning all sorts of new skills with a fantastic technical team. I’m still a Grade 6 in my substantive role and will return to continue supporting lab classes at the higher level.  I hope to progress further in terms of responsibility and see lab management/Lab co-ordinator as the career goal I’d like to achieve. I want to be able to continually improve the lab spaces, support education and help maintain a positive lab environment for all students.