Dr Iana Gritcan, TEU member and senior chemistry technician in the School of Science at Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makau Rau Auckland University of Technology, describes her experience of working from home, and away from the research lab.

As a senior chemistry technician, in the School of Science at AUT, my primary role involves looking after the chemical stock, preparing the physical space for learning and offering a spare pair of hands for teaching staff in the lab. My work is hands-on, and relies on my ability to work and be physically present in the lab. Not so much from home...

Like all working people in Aotearoa, news that the country would be moving into full lockdown was confronting, and emotional. Of course there was the initial concern for the safety of friends, colleagues and family. Then there was the fear and uncertainty of what this would mean for me financially, and for my ability to continue in the job I love.

I was fortunate to learn I would continue to receive full pay over this period, but uncertainties over my ability to continue to contribute in a role that relies primarily on my ability to be in the lab remained.

It has been challenging for everyone. I have spoken with other technicians whose primary job involved lab work who felt empty. We love our jobs, but all of a sudden we couldn’t do that physical, hands-on work that is such an essential part of what we do as technicians. So now we are at home, and what do we do?

After the initial shock, we quickly began thinking about the work we could do remotely. My first week in lockdown was full of online administrative work for the research lab; updating information about stock and the various chemicals we use for research and learning. Now what?

Students still need support, perhaps moreso than ever. We can teach theory online, and continue to provide educational resources, but again, the biggest thing for chemistry students is actually being in the lab, and developing practical skills.

Students need to know how to perform that hands-on practical work, so when they go to industry and perhaps become laboratory technicians, they have all the relevant skill sets. They need that experience, and to know how to apply theory with their hands. They need the experience of knowing how chemicals will react, and how to manage that in real life.

Of course we are social beings, both as learners and educators, and we all benefit from the physical interaction and engagement. With a younger generation, this engagement is key – particulary in the sciences – in building students’ confidence, knowledge and ability to practically apply theory.

Over the lockdown period, my lab has managed classes so that students are emphasising the skills they need to remember, those skills we helped them develop prior to lockdown.

When you’re teaching within the physical lab environment, you are there with students to ensure safety, but also to monitor and assists them in learning new skills and methods.

Instead, since lockdown, we have provided students with videos they can find online, to help them reinforce what they have learned, and to see how theory is applied in the lab.

I’m always eager to learn and to pick up new skills. So I have found digital work I can develop from home. I have been creating and editing educational videos for students, and Iast week, as restrictions were slightly loosened, I was finally able to access the lab to record further material that students can familiarise themselves with remotely.

I’ve also been attending online workshops, developing new knowledge and understanding of the various ways I can support my technician colleagues and academic staff, both within the lab and remotely. But it’s challenging trying to create something out of nothing, and of course, we are constantly reaching out to other staff to lend a hand whenever we can.

While it’s the primary role of academics to create content and educate students, this work cannot be achieved without the support of lab technicians and professional staff. We continue to work, and to develop professionally so that we can hit the ground running as we move into the final stages of lockdown. The role of technicians who continue to support staff and students, and who are taking this time to develop professionally needs to be acknowledged.

For lab technicians, it’s been a huge adjustment to our new way of working, and a huge shock to learn we couldn’t continue to do the job we love. We all wish we could get back into our labs, our classrooms and offices. We are all missing that level of interaction with student and colleagues, which can’t be replaced at the moment, but we are all hopeful that soon we wil be allowed back in the teaching environment we all miss.