Unlocking the key to life on Earth with a Technician at the Natural History Museum

The smallest pieces of material hold the key to understanding all life on earth. It is hard to believe, but true – and technicians like Andi, are key to making sense of it all. Andie Hall, 41, works at the Natural History Museum as a Research Assistant in Molecular Biology.

Scientists hand her samples of DNA from plants, animals, and more – and Andie figures out which methods need to be used to ‘read’ the DNA and unravel the information it contains. This information can end up in the Museum’s DNA Barcode Library – a reference system with the images and DNA of thousands of different living species. This contributes to national and global attempts to sequence the genomes of all life on earth!

We spoke to Andie to learn more about the fascinating work she makes happen as a technician.

Hi Andie!  What do you do as a Research Assistant in Molecular Biology at the Natural History Museum?

I provide a “Next-generation sequencing” service (NGS) at the Natural History Museum (NHM). This means that scientists bring me samples (bits of animal or plant, bacteria, soil, water- could be anything) and I figure out how to “read” the DNA molecules within the sample. Because the Museum researches so many different living things, there’s rarely a standard method for a particular project. I use my experience to find the best way of getting data for scientists’ research. I also teach lab techniques to museum staff and students and help my colleagues plan or troubleshoot their experiments. Sometimes I write new methods for working with DNA.

Why are technicians like you important to your industry?

DNA technologies are evolving really quickly. There is so much going on, it makes sense to have dedicated staff for all the technical stuff. Most of my colleagues don’t have the time or resources to learn in-depth lab techniques themselves and would rather leave it to a specialist. We are the team entrusted with their precious samples, who can teach their students all the tricky techniques they haven’t had time to learn yet. Quite simply, we enable scientists to get stuff done.

What couldn’t happen without you?

I think much of the museum’s molecular biology research wouldn’t happen without our team. There are plenty of companies that offer an NGS service (also run by technicians!) but those services usually employ standard methods which don’t work for the weird and wonderful things my colleagues do. We’re really bespoke, and like to get properly involved with the projects, rather than just churning out data. I think the fact that that we care makes a big difference.

What led you to choose this job role?

To be honest, I kind of ended up here by accident. I had laboratory experience and had studied ground beetles for my higher-level qualifications. When I saw a job advertised in the NHM insect DNA lab, I thought I would fit. My boss chose me because I seemed interested in the role; she knew I'd make a good go of it. Since then, my role has really evolved: at first, I was loading the dishwasher and assisting with basic lab techniques. As time went on, I was trusted with more and more lab work ‘til eventually I was given whole projects to run. I now focus on NGS because there was a need – much of my job progression has been about identifying a need for my skills and stepping-up.

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

You need to be very pragmatic and thoughtful to work out exactly what’s happening inside those tiny tubes of clear liquid. The field [of DNA analysis] is constantly developing, so you need to be on your toes. You can’t be the kind of person who has to be in control and know exactly what they’re doing all the time – I’m constantly learning and working things out as I go along. I feel stupid much of the time and then remind myself that it’s not just me who doesn’t know what to do – nobody knows! As we work with so many different sample types, experience is very valuable. We often talk about having the right “feel” for a method or sample, which isn’t very scientific! It’s a bit of an art. I yearn for the day someone brings me an easy sample and a standard protocol.

 

What is your current daily routine like?

I don't really have a routine – every day is different. One day I might be in the lab doing experiments, running the DNA sequencer, teaching or advising my colleagues. Another, I might be working from home, writing equipment manuals and protocols, compiling data, and planning experiments. I also edit our departmental newsletter and web pages, which is a nice change from science stuff.

What would you say to either a young person thinking about a technical career?

Don’t be afraid to step up and do something new or admit you don’t know something – it’s part of learning and what science is all about. In fact, get used to not knowing! If someone is asking, it’s because they don’t know either.

Treat every project as a learning opportunity. There are thousands of webinars, online tutorials and YouTube videos, as well as conferences and manuals which can help you. Ultimately, the best way to learn something is to just get on and do it.

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