The Technician Craft and Graft Exhibition at the Crick Institute in London

Angela Beddows reports on her recent visit to the Crick Institute.

The Technician Craft and Graft Exhibition at the Crick Institute in London.

Technicians: Craft and Graft exhibition at The Crick Institute

In May I was visiting London and whilst there I went to check out the Technicians: Craft and Graft exhibition at The Crick Institute. It’s the first time I’d seen or heard of an Exhibition about my profession so I wanted to check it out. Whilst it was short, it gave a good idea what went on and how the various technicians contributed. Here’s an overview of what the exhibition contained.

At the start of the exhibition there was a short video outlining the 5 main areas that The Crick technicians covered: Glass Washing, Microscopy, Cell Services, Engineering and the Fly Facility. They support 1,200 scientists working at The Crick who are busy exploring fundamental questions about human biology and what happens when disease strikes (from cancer to heart disease, strokes and infections). Although they rarely play the leading roles, without this ensemble cast there would be no science at The Crick at all.

The first display was about the Glass Washing technicians. Each Glass Wash technician is responsible for clearing and resupplying their own set of labs and can reach up to 10,000 steps a day with this task. In the labs the scientists fill flasks with liquid broth to feed hungry bacteria and dissolve DNA samples in perfectly pure liquids. When their work is done they stack up the empty glassware to be cleaned and sterilised.

The Crick’s scientists use a multitude of different vessels and tools in their research and the technician must consider each item and decide if it can be reused and how to clean it without destroying it. Usually after washing the glassware they pressure cook it in an autoclave to make it sterile, with each item having indicator tape which turns stripy once the correct temperature has been reached. Science at The Crick never stops and Glass Wash technicians clear away and replace the dirty lab glassware twice a day from every corner of the Institute. In a year a team of 12 technicians will wash approximately 75,000 items with great attention to detail making sure it’s all sterile and germ free otherwise it could put life-changing scientific research at risk.

Image of a resin block being cut into wafer thin slicesThe second display was about the Microscope technicians. The electron microscopy team have high-level expertise in subjects ranging from physics, cell biology and computing. Along with maintaining the microscopes and capturing images they combine their expertise to test new ideas using off the shelf optics, 3D printed parts and metalwork machined in the in house workshop. Scientists arrive with samples they’ve grown or modified in their labs (from fruit fly embryos, zebrafish or cancer cells) to be studied using the sophisticated range of microscopes. The technicians then prepare the ultra-thin samples from a resin block by cutting them into slices so delicate they can be floated on water. They use a low-tech tool consisting of on an eyelash glued to a cocktail stick to transfer them from the water to the grid that goes into the electron microscope.

Samples must be sliced one thousand times thinner than a human hair in order for an electron microscope to see inside before being mounted in an ultramicrotome. One of the exhibits had one of these tools and you could use it to have a go yourself at sorting out samples. The video accompanying this display was by Raffa Carzaniga, the Deputy Head of Electron Microscopy Science Technology Platform, who’s responsible for running the day to day operations of the electron microscope. It showed how the samples are prepared and also explained how she ended up being a Technician. As she was a very active PhD student and her Professor said “Right, we have had enough of you, you need to become patient, and we are sending you to the Electron Microscope Facility downstairs, go!” So she duly went downstairs and after a few weeks her professor sought her out and asked her where she’d been and she said “Well I’ve been in the Electron Microscope and I’ve fallen in love with the electron microscope, I cannot come back and finish my Biochemistry PhD!”. As she says herself, the first time you look down an electron microscope you discover a completely different world.

The Cell Services technicians also had their own display. Instead of experimenting on living patients the Crick scientists work with cells that are artificially grown in flasks. The Cell Services technicians make these flasks up and keep the cells regularly fed, keep them uncontaminated and give them room to reproduce. They can look after and nurture 100 different types of cells at the same time.

The Engineering technicians display was varied as is their tasks. The Crick scientists often need the Engineering technicians to build or adapt scientific apparatus (e.g. a new chamber to hold living cells) so they can make further progress with their research. The engineers sketch possible solutions and build (or 3D print) prototypes before manufacturing the final product. The Cricks electronic engineers also often need to fix faulty scientific equipment, often going back to basics on how it was built in order to effect a fix.

An image of the equipment used by the fruit fly technicians.The final display was about the Fly Facility technicians. Fruit flies are used in research here because approximately 70% of genes for human disease have a fruit fly equivalent. The technicians run a constant and complex Fruit Fly breeding programme, managing which flies from which families get to cohabit and mate. They also create genetically modified flies using a very steady hand to inject edited DNA into fly embryos. Raising fruit flies is a relentless task shared between 4 technicians and 70 scientists. There was an interactive exhibit where you could try sorting through fruit flies which I found difficult as I don’t have a steady hand! A fruit fly atlas was also available to look through as there are many different types of fruit fly with thousands of differences between them.

All in all, though it was a small exhibition, it was very good at showing what goes on behind the scenes at The Crick Institute and how fundamental technicians are to the success of its cutting edge biomedical research. The videos and the interactive exhibits were also worthwhile. If you wish to visit it yourself it’s open weekly Wednesday to Saturday until the end of November. It has free admission and is located on the ground floor of The Crick Institute building (not far from Kings Cross). Further information is available here:

By Angela Beddows

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