In September 2011, I started work at the 2 Sisters microbiology lab in Nottingham. This built on my previous experience as a lab technician – a role I enjoyed and was good at. The first couple of months were spent learning the lab’s core procedures: aseptic sampling of food samples, writing and pipetting onto agar plates for each sample’s tests, receipt of samples into the lab using specialist LIMS software, safe waste disposal and glassware cleaning.
After this initial period I began training on more specific tasks: special Salmonella and Listeria procedures, counting colonies on incubated agar plates and confirmation methods for certain bacterial types. In late 2012 I was trained on the preparation of the sterile agars and broths that are used in all the lab’s testing procedures.
The main challenge for this job is to complete any set task as fast as possible while at the same time maintaining complete accuracy. Any mistakes made are likely to waste time either immediately or further down the line, while taking too much time over a method could be just as costly if there were to be a delay in completing that day’s testing quota. With such high volumes (over 3000 tests on a busy day), any delays will further stress an already busy lab.
In June 2012, I was offered the role of Equipment Manager in addition to the routine duties mentioned above. This proved to be an enjoyable challenge, which required me to balance commissioning, calibration and maintenance of 100’s of pieces of equipment with the routine lab duties that were assigned to me every day.
One of the main problems facing me was to keep the lab’s autoclaves in operation. Years of relentless 24 hour use, together with hard water and substantial modifications during their history, mean that these machines could be rather temperamental and it was up to me to quickly become familiar with common problems so that I could reduce our high number of engineer call-outs. By learning from specialists, observing symptoms as they developed, and attending a seminar on autoclaves, I was able to provide engineers with detailed information over the phone and sometimes fix the problem myself, allowing the autoclaves to run more smoothly than before.
It was up to me to familiarise myself with all pieces of equipment, develop solutions to any common problems, and to make sure technicians were comfortable with equipment use. When I observed a high rate of damage to a particular type of tubing, I was able to trace the problem back to its source – a sharp section of the tubing clamps – and advise technicians on avoiding further damage through writing an official communication as well as through word of mouth. I also updated several of the lab’s official equipment procedures where I noticed that information was lacking.
In September 2012 I began to be given the task of ‘Bench Organising’ for the day. This role is to oversee all routine activity in the lab, ensuring a smooth work flow from sample receipt all the way through to plate incubation, together with any jobs immediately relating to this. It demands awareness of: the work rate of each technician, availability and usage rates of all media, any time dependent testing and any non-routine extra work as well as making sure all methods are carried out correctly. Avoiding delays or backlogs between different testing stages can be especially tough, especially as work rates change depending on the type of samples being tested at the time.
In early 2013 the lab began preparing for the ambitious task of moving to a new building, and during this time Equipment Manager became a full time role for several weeks. As soon as they were switched on in the new lab, all incubators and fridges required monitoring to ensure they were achieving the correct temperatures, and it was up to me to analyse mapping data to position temperature probes correctly and set appropriate alarm limits for each one. A number of brand new pieces of equipment were installed to aid in media preparation, and I had to quickly familiarise myself with them, help test that they were fit for purpose and write the official procedures on their use. Predictably there were several teething problems and it was important to troubleshoot as quickly as possible and to keep all senior members of staff appraised of any ongoing work. All the correct paperwork had to be completed immediately as the lab underwent an annual audit just two weeks after moving, which went well and with no major issues identified. During this time I was willing to stay late after hours and to come in for extra days in order to get everything completed in time.
Following the lab move, the role of Equipment Manager was incorporated into a separate full time position and I worked closely with my successor to ensure a smooth handover. The extra knowledge gained while I was managing equipment allows me to work better as a technician and to help others understand equipment and fix minor problems.
Over 2013 and early 2014 I became involved in reporting the results of our testing to our customers. Accuracy is obviously of paramount importance in this role, and can be taxing when processing up to 3000 individual results with no errors within the working day. After confidentially reporting results to individual customers, it is also up to me to process any communication that comes back from a customer such as a request for further information or a change to testing requirements.
I have recently started training other technicians on a variety of lab procedures. This suits me well as I find it easy to get on with others and I am good at adapting my communication style to each individual. It can be a challenge to balance authority and amiability, but by remaining aware of this and being receptive to feedback from those I work with, I feel I am quickly learning the right balance. I tend to remember details of procedures that others may forget, and I do my best to understand the logic behind the procedures; these assets are extremely useful when passing the information onto others as I can both pass on more information and also do my best to make that information memorable.
It is of great importance that the work of the lab is high quality and completely traceable, so a growing part of my job is to correct any errors that I observe, whether it be an individual technician’s method, incorrectly filled paperwork or sometimes the way a procedure is written. If these errors are large, recurring or out of my control I report these errors to senior members of staff, but however errors are dealt with the important thing is that they are fixed, and it is this attitude that maintains the integrity of the lab.
In June 2014 I transferred from the lab into a new role within the company. I learned a huge amount from my time there and have been able to apply those skills and knowledge to other areas both in and out of work.