Technicians Make the RI Christmas Lecture Happen - Part 3

Will you be watching The Royal Institution’s Annual Christmas Lecture?  Having been broadcast since 1825 to bring science education, experiments, and exciting discovery to young people through the TV screen, it is now essential Christmas viewing. We got the chance to speak to three technicians who won the opportunity to join the production team for the creation of 2020’s lecture, Planet Earth: A user’s guide.

In our last interview of a three-part series, we spoke to Helena Brown, 33, Lead Technician of the Sorby Lab Suite, School of Earth & Environment, University of Leeds.

Hi Helena! Can you explain what you normally do?

Normally I support PHD students with their lab work and teach in fluid dynamics. This is an area of study where we look at the internal structures of fluids and flows and how they interact with each other. For instance, our work can be used to accurately assess flood risk and predicting how water will flow when certain particles are present. Recently, I have also been part of a project where we use thermal camera imaging to look at how masks fit passengers on public transport.  

What skills/ attributes do you normally need to do your job?

To do my day-to-day role, it’s really important to have good practical skills, a pragmatic mindset, be good at problem-solving and listening and interpretating other people’s ideas. Quite often you’ll be told about a concept and you have to think how can I create an experiment that will reflect that and achieve the desired results? You also have to be two steps ahead, anticipating the tools and equipment people will need.

What led you to apply to support the creation of this year’s Royal Institution (RI) Christmas Lecture?

I've always enjoyed watching the RI lectures, it's a Christmas tradition for me and my parents as they’re also fascinated with science-y things! The reason I applied to support this year’s lecture – Planet Earth: a user’s guide – was because I was really interested in this topic. I really enjoy earth science and it’s what I've chosen to do a career in. As such I felt that my skills were very applicable and could be useful to the team.

What was your role on the show?

They eased me in gently – one of my first tasks was to make a plastic bucket look like an old leather bucket using papier mache and paint. This is a good example of the kind of things I found myself getting up to during the placement - creating demos and props to explain a complex scientific principle in a fun and visual way.

Each day we would be given tasks to complete, usually to create a proof-of-concept for a demo, and then later in the day we would test the demo — filming it to show the lecturers and production team. The demo would then be adjusted to ensure it worked well and looked good on camera.

I think they were often pleasantly surprised by how fast the technicians could turn things around – we’re used to just getting on with things and making things happen!

Being on TV is something I've studiously avoided throughout my entire career! But it actually wasn't that bad and was really enjoyable at the end of the day


What did you enjoy the most about your role as part of the Christmas Lecture production team?

I think it was the freedom! In my normal job, the experiments we create have to be really precise and durable and parts of the equipment have to be aligned to within a 10th of a millimetre. However, with this, the team had to remind us that the demonstrations only needed to work for 30 seconds whilst on camera! It satisfying to just get on with things and be able to accomplish loads of little wins everyday.

Did you discover any new skills or achieve anything new volunteering for the RI Christmas lecture team?

Yes, while I knew I would be creating things, I didn’t know that my role would also involve bringing things onto the stage and being on camera in the background during the demonstration to make sure that things worked. Being on TV is something I've studiously avoided throughout my entire career! But it actually wasn't that bad and was really enjoyable at the end of the day.

What’s it like knowing your family are going to see you on TV this year?

It's quite nice! It will also be good to have visual proof for something I’ve contributed to. When I was there, I just got so caught up in accomplishing the goal I didn't really think about the wider implications of what I was doing. But yes, it will be something nice for my CV! And it was really enjoyable to be a part of. I hadn’t realised how lovely, interesting and welcoming the RI team and the fellow technicians were going to be. I have met people that I will definitely keep in touch with.

What would you say to technicians thinking about applying next year?

Definitely go for it. I didn't really know what I was letting myself in for, but really good fun.

Do you have any tips or advice to say to a young person about being a technician?

Technical skills can be quite undervalued in a lot of ways. I think the Christmas lectures are a good way how important they, and technicians are, in making scientific research, experimentation and study happen.

I've had other jobs, but one of the joys of my job as a technician is that you do such a variety of things. I work on different projects throughout the year and I also manage finances, health and safety, and I'm an equality inclusion coordinator for my school. In this job, you get to do so many different things and learn new skills all the time.

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