Dr Clare Stevenson, head of directorate at the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park, explains how her work is helping to deliver the institute’s world-changing science, while championing the role of technicians in UK research.

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

Eastern Daily Press: Dr Clare Stevenson champions the role of technicians in researchDr Clare Stevenson champions the role of technicians in research (Image: Simon Litherland)

What does your role involve?

I am an enabler. I use my expertise to support the John Innes Centre director, Professor Graham Moore, to deliver our strategy and research. This job is very varied and can involve everything from operations, funding, institute vision and strategy, through to culture and troubleshooting to ensure everyone is happy.

We’re currently in the process of securing our next five years of funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The team gave a presentation in London in October about how we will use our plant and microbial science expertise to address the big societal questions and global challenges. These are encapsulated in our four Institute Strategic Programmes (ISPs): delivering sustainable wheat; advancing plant health; building robustness in crops; and harnessing biosynthesis for sustainable food and health.

I am also a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and associate lead for the Technician Commitment team, a university and research institution initiative, with support from the Science Council and the Gatsby Foundation. Launched in 2017, the Technician Commitment aims to increase the visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability for technicians working in higher education and research, across all disciplines.

How do you champion the role of research technicians?

Technicians are the glue that holds any institute together. The term technician encompasses a variety of roles and includes those that grow our plants, look after our labs, prepare the media to grow bacteria and provide scientific support. They are often specialists in a specific technique or area of research and can therefore use that knowledge to train students and researchers, look after complex equipment and provide institutional memory. They make it possible for excellent research to happen.

I joined the John Innes Centre as a research assistant in structural biology in 1995. It was a real learning curve where I became an expert in protein crystallography – a technique for solving the three-dimensional structure of proteins from protein crystals.

Proteins are large, complex molecules present in all living organisms. They play important roles in structure, function and regulation and include many essential biological compounds such as enzymes, hormones and antibodies. If you know what they look like in three dimensions, you will gain a greater understanding of how that protein works, which can lead to a better understanding of disease, being able to modify the protein to increase efficiency and creating new and improved drugs

I have not followed the classic scientific career path. After my degree, I worked in industry testing new drugs then moved to the John Innes Centre where I carried out research, completed my PhD and worked on a structural biology facility. This year, I left the lab bench to move to a senior management role supporting the scientists in a different way.

Having worked at the John Innes Centre in a range of roles with scientists from different departments and disciplines, I can represent different perspectives at senior meetings. That might involve supporting administrators, technical staff, students, project managers, researchers and the communication team. The best science is done by diverse teams of people across different disciplines and viewpoints.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in science?

I come from a medical family in Darlington. My dad was a doctor, my mum was a nurse, my granddad was a doctor and my grandma was a nurse! It was always expected that I would be the next doctor in the family. But when I did my A levels, I didn’t get the grades needed to study medicine and followed my own interest in biochemistry.

I did my degree at Liverpool John Moores University in 1989 with a year in industry. After university, I moved to Suffolk to work in drug metabolism and my final project was on Viagra.

I did my PhD part-time at the John Innes Centre while working and having my son. I never wanted to be a group leader focusing on just one area of research and much prefer working on a large range of projects, helping others using my skills and expertise.

Eastern Daily Press: Clare loves traveling the world and attending kizomba dancing eventsClare loves traveling the world and attending kizomba dancing events (Image: Karen Chau)

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

Every day is different. I get to see what happens behind the scenes and be involved in how the John Innes Centre is run and hope to make a positive contribution to the people working here and the wider community. I’m a people person and get energy from working with others. I feel very lucky to work here. It’s a really diverse community with incredible facilities, exciting research and great people.

There are a lot of jobs across the research park. You don't have to be a high flyer to have a career in science. By trying new things and doing what you love, you learn new skills and get extra expertise that you can utilise in a range of different areas. Nobody should be intimidated by scientific research because each person can become an expert in a different area and contribute in a small way to have a big impact.

What do you get up to when you’re not working?

I have a 17-year-old son who is currently doing his A Levels and to support him am studying for my Further Maths A leveI. I love to travel and have been all over the world with my family and this year have visited Albania and Cyprus. I love dancing and regularly attend salsa, bachata and kizomba events. This year I have travelled to Sardinia for dancing and will visit Latvia in December. In the past, I have been fortunate to attend conferences abroad so being able to combine my work with travel and perhaps even find a local dance event is a real bonus!

Dr Clare Stevenson is head of directorate at the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park. You can follow her on Twitter @cemstevenson