“It’s never too late to change direction… Just go for it, be curious, be adventurous and take a chance!”
Allison McIntosh-Smith has been in the faculty since 2013 and recently changed career paths, from a Professional services role as an Office Administration Manager to a Technical services role as a Laboratory Technician. She tells us here why she made the jump, and how she is finding the transition so far.
Tell us about you – where are you from, who you are outside of work?
I am originally from Bath and moved to Bristol in 1994. My very first job was at the Royal Bank of Scotland where I worked in various roles for 18 years before leaving to become qualified as a complementary therapist and run my own business. In October 2009 I joined University of Bristol as a receptionist at Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) also know more widely as “Children of the 90s” in the Department of Social Medicine. This initiative involved tracking the health of a set of children born in the 1990s and more latterly, their parents. Within six months, I was given the opportunity to become a Fieldworker as part of this study which involved taking blood tests, conducting various body scans including CT, ultrasound and 3D body imaging, as well as taking participants through a variety of other tests. I became Head Fieldworker on a sub study of Fathers which I thoroughly enjoyed and was given management responsibility for a team of 17.
Due to redundancy from my post at ALSPAC, I started working in the Faculty of Engineering in ACCIS – now the Bristol Composites Institute – in 2013 as an Administration Manager. As part of a job-share, I was responsible for the day to day needs of a team of around 200 academics, researchers and PhD students, managing office space, all related administration and line management responsibility for a small team within the centre. I enjoyed being part of something so successful and through my curiosity and the enthusiasm of the team, I found an unexpected interest in the work that was going on.
Outside of work I love to travel and explore new destinations. I love gardening and nature especially dogs and bees!
Tell us how you got here – what did you do to get here, what decisions did you make, what motivated you?
Changing direction in this way was a big but easy decision for me. The role was advertised and I immediately felt excited about the opportunity it represented. I had started to feel that I wanted more from my professional life than what I was doing and that was ready to challenge myself. Starting again came with both time and financial implications as the role required me to work more hours at a lower grade than I was on previously, but this was a sacrifice I was prepared to make with my husband’s support which made this possible. I have a watershed birthday later this year – I think we all take a moment to take stock at those times and I’m very happy that I did.
Why do you like your job?
I absolutely love my job! I wake up every morning looking forward to the day ahead and sometimes I don’t even want to go home for the weekend! I so enjoy being part of a diverse team with such friendly and approachable, helpful colleagues. This role takes me far outside of my comfort zone and on a couple of occasions I’ve really felt this, but with the support of my team I’ve made it through and every day I learn a bit more and feel more confident. I love the fact that the role is very hand-on and no two days are ever the same.
I love the interaction with such a variety of people and the constant challenge. I am a curious person and every day I am involved in something different and learning something new. One of the first things I did was to attend the Introduction to Composites course at the National Composites Centre where I created my very own carbon fibre coaster! I am very much looking forward to completing more training, hopefully in Resin Infusion, Microscopy and Composites Testing Techniques amongst many others. In the past few weeks, colleagues have gone out of their way to pass on some of their skills to me in basic electronics, technical measurement skills and scientific notations.
I feel I can bring my own unique personality to this role and challenge perceptions of who a lab technician is – right down to my pink safety shoes!
How do you make it work in terms of work/life balance?
I would say this is one area which I don’t always get right but I’m working on it! But one thing for sure is that making this change has been a real boost to my mental health.
How have you been supported, and how do you support others?
I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity and the support of Technical Services. I would like to thank Darren Roderick, Steve Rae, James Thatcher and Yusuf Mahadik for their invaluable input to my training and the confidence they have in me. I couldn’t do it without them. I am also grateful for the flexibility to work four days a week as this has made a big difference on working on my work/life balance.
I like to think that I am approachable and always willing to help others. Having worked in the Institute for such a long time, I am aware of the challenges that people can face when carrying out lab work and if I can help support them through that then that’s my aim. I’m also a big advocate of team work and I hope I can support my wider Technical Services colleagues however I can. I enjoy problem solving and feel I can contribute to challenging and improving the way we do things.
How do you think the Covid 19 period will change your role or workplace?
I would say Covid 19 has clearly been a big challenge but in some ways has given us scope to take stock of how we do things and what we can do to improve for our users and the organisation. From quite early in lockdown I have been in Queen’s Building helping to set up safe working practices in the offices and research laboratories to ensure they are a safe environment for staff and students to return to. We have been operating for over 12 weeks now and are pretty much at full safe capacity every day. A booking system has been set up where lab users are given an allocated time to come and use the lab and this has been so successful that lots of users have asked if it can continue as the norm. It gives us the chance as a team to ensure that we can give people help and attention as needed and that the expertise they need is available, a year ago this would have not seemed remotely plausible. It’s also been a requirement to rationalise and declutter working areas for ease of regular cleaning and this has resulted in a more professional environment.
I am focusing on increasing my technical skills at every available opportunity whilst helping with the day to day running of the composites lab. I am keen to find my niche within the team and to become the ‘go to’ person for some areas, maybe test machines and imaging. I have been instrumental in setting up a helpdesk and equipment inventory in the lab and would like to become involved in laboratory management in the future. In my spare time I am reading physics and chemistry books and listening to science podcasts to increase my background knowledge.
What advice would you give people considering a similar career?
Just go for it, be curious, be adventurous and take a chance, what have you got to lose! And it’s never too late to change direction. Working in the university environment presents a great opportunity to be involved in so many fantastic areas of research. If you find something that interests you, chat to some relevant researchers or students and try to get involved in some way, I found most people welcome the chance to chat about their research.