Gareth Bicknell

Quality Manager, Oxford Musculoskeletal Biobank.

Former research staff in Renal Pathology, and Transplant Surgery, at the University of Leicester.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Gareth Bicknell

Research staff experience

Having completed my doctoral research, I worked a series of short-term research contracts over three years with the University of Leicester’s Department of Pathology, embedded in the local NHS Trust. I helped develop an in-house technique for gene expression studies (in specialist terms, for extracting and analysing complementary DNA libraries from single human glomeruli).

As my Pathology funding came to a close, I was offered the chance to use these techniques in Transplant Surgery, as well as to set up a new NHS-embedded laboratory for the purpose. Alongside my research into renal transplant gene expression, I also used my programming talents to write a web-based lab information system, a sample inventory system, and a web-based COSHH (Control of substances hazardous to health) assessment program. Together these helped me run the laboratory in a more efficient way for all.

As a result, after four years, I was asked additionally to help out with a new tissue-processing facility for transplant patients, where I gained invaluable experience in quality systems. Two years later, this ‘help’ was transformed into a managerial role, and I successfully converted the facility from its voluntary MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency) accreditation into a Human Tissue Authority-licensed establishment.

This is the point at which my personal research activities ceased, and my career orientated itself towards full-time systems management.

Transition to a new career

It hadn’t taken long after my doctorate to realise that if the best researchers had to struggle for funding, then I stood little chance.

To be frank, if I am presented with an abstract academic goal, I can’t see the wood for the trees – but if I am presented with an abstract system or technical problem, I can usually see a pathway to a solution!

I’ve always wanted to make a difference – so doing a job that others hate has been my way of contributing. Recognising my personal strengths and weaknesses has been key.

The transition was gradual: part accident, part taking of the opportunities presented to me, and part the result of working with my own, less obvious, abilities.

The management of the research laboratory was a natural extension to my research roles; the management of the tissue-processing facility resulted from my success with the research laboratory.

Based on these experiences, and with a desire to ‘get the inside track’, I volunteered to help the nascent Human Tissue Authority perform its first round of inspections. As a result, I developed an ability to interpret relevant UK legislation and Codes of Practice, which led to a request for me to advise on the local NHS Trust’s readiness for gene therapy trials. I was also asked to help with internal research audit and departmental health and safety (in addition to what I was already doing).

Despite an excellent internal reputation, my NHS funding had to end at short notice in 2011, and the University was forced to make my post redundant. After a very brief stint in freelance COSHH assessment, I was employed as maternity-cover Manager for a research biobank at the University of Oxford. When the Manager returned, I was retained as Quality Manager.

With each step, I have considered whether I wanted to distance myself further from bench research. Job security and loyalty have (perhaps wrongly) counted for more than whole-career prospects and financial gain, but I am happy with what I do. From a philosophical perspective, I simply prefer environments where the main goal is not maximising profit.

I am indebted to each of my managers for seeing the potential in me, and for allowing me to develop myself (and their systems) with such freedom. Even in academia, I think this level of freedom is unusual. The most challenging moments in my career have been picking myself up during redundancy, and the constant communication needed to achieve successful change management.

Current job

The Oxford Musculoskeletal Biobank services research groups working both within and outside the University of Oxford, including the Oxford Musculoskeletal Biomedical Research Unit, and the Thames Valley & South Midlands Clinical Research Network.

As Quality Manager, my primary role is to support the Manager in ensuring adherence to the conditions of the HTA licence, the terms of ethical approval, and the requirements of our quality system.

I enjoy designing better ways of dealing with existing problems and tasks. Most people hate the daily realities of quality and safety management, but I thrive on getting the required results as robustly and easily as possible.

I have been initiating a long programme to upgrade the existing robust systems into a more efficient setting, and I have gained valuable experience into the complexities of managing generic research ethics. I have also been a contributor to national and international initiatives to produce biobanking standards.

The highs outweigh the lows in my job. More than anything else, the lows have involved the repetitive communication of rules that I believe are there for a good reason (and not because some bureaucrat wanted to relieve his boredom!).

In many ways, the principles of my job are little different to those in HE research – there’s an overarching goal, a breakdown of intermediate aims, a series of systems to achieve them, and the need to account for every factor. However, the big divergence is the absence of need to search for the next grant!

Competencies old and new

Being able to sympathise with bench-workers, as well as the management and regulatory ends of research, has been invaluable. People forget that we’re all trying to achieve the same goal: the best result in the shortest time, at the lowest cost, by the least painful means!

Having an eye for detail, and the ability to assess results critically, is still a ‘must’ – but you either have it, or you don’t. Being familiar with computer programming was also very useful – not only did it allow me to create my own tools, but I believe it still makes me a useful bridge between IT Professional and User, because I can talk both languages.

It was immense fun, if nerve-wracking, to have the responsibility for a large amount of capital so soon into my post-doctoral career, and to have helped the HTA with inspections in its formative year. Both these experiences reminded me that we lucky few stay in our ruts usually by choice!

Other than that, like most, I have had to develop my time-management skills, and I have broadened my audience beyond the rigidness of scientific presentation and the wonderful informality of academia. Being able to speak ‘clinical’, or ‘management’, or ‘regulator’, as well as developing client/public engagement skills, is vital.

Reflecting on my career path

On balance, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I get to do things that I find interesting, but which others find irritating and boring. It’s like Marmite and Lego rolled into one!

My one regret is that I didn’t try to turn my safety portfolio into a formal qualification until it was too late.

I intend to keep moving upwards, though I accept that it may be a practical challenge at the moment!

Suggestions and advice

Stick at it (if you enjoy research), but remember that life isn’t over if you can’t research any more. Your innate abilities and your training give you a power and freedom to choose that many in the world simply don’t have.