From the Field to the Greenhouse with Lab Technician Laura Crook

From the Field to the Greenhouse with Lab Technician Laura Crook

Laura Crook is a research technician and a Smart Crop Protection program coordinator, working at Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom. She recently took time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about her role here.

Laura has always had an affinity for science and nature which led her to complete her undergraduate degree in environmental conservation at Bangor University. During her time there, Laura spent two summers working as a student lab technician. This provided her with valuable experience and she realized that she is happiest when working outside. She also learned that she is happy to be tasked with somewhat repetitive jobs and that she enjoys flexibility when working. Beginning in 2009, Laura did two seasons of Lapwing surveying with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a nonprofit in the United Kingdom. It was here, that she discovered her love for fieldwork.

Laura started her first technician position after applying for many different jobs in her early 20’s. She heard about an opening at Sheffield University and liked that the position would offer a mix of fieldwork and lab work. As Laura says, “the rest is history.” She loved her time at this job and when her contract was nearing its end, she applied to her current role at Rothamsted Research because it sounded very similar. She has been in this position for nearly four years and has found that a hands-on approach suits her personality and helps her to be successful.

At Rothamsted, Laura studies all aspects of black-grass to try to better understand this plant, which is the number one most problematic weed for farmers. In 2014, they undertook a major fieldwork initiative to collect as many seed samples as possible from all different types of farms. The project collected 132 different populations of black-grass and then studied their levels of resistance to four different herbicides. In all, they studied over 60,000 plants during this process. The study found high levels of herbicide resistance across the populations and that 79% of populations were resistant to as least 3 of the herbicides tested. In the end, there were only two populations that showed no resistance, a shockingly low number.

During experiments, the research technicians spend most of their days in greenhouses, sowing and caring for black-grass plants. They also spray the plants with different herbicides and harvest them. When work in the greenhouse is finished for the day, technicians have time to catch up on emails or to enter data. During fieldwork, the day looks very different. The technicians will head out to the site in the early morning and then walk around the farms recording data about the black-grass present. During this process, the researchers try to visit many farms in one day, which can be tiring, but Laura says the team always enjoys the work they are doing. After the data is collected in the field or in the greenhouse, it is entered into the computer system. The lab uses barcodes to keep track of the samples in the greenhouse since they deal with such a large number. Tracking all of these samples can be tedious, but it is important to ensure the experiment has accurate results.

Laura really enjoys being a lab technician, but she recently expanded her horizons and took on a new role as a Smart Crop Protection program coordinator. Smart Crop Protection is a new initiative, started by Rothamsted, that involves a gene to field approach to controlling insects, weeds, and disease in agriculture. As the program coordinator, Laura organizes meetings and reports findings back to her manager. This job has strengthened Laura’s science communication skills which is something she hopes to continue to improve on in the future.

In her free time, Laura writes for her blog, “The Life of a Technician.” The inspiration to do this came in 2016, when Laura participated in an event for Soapbox Science, an organization that works to advance women in science. In this event, she spent an hour on a soapbox in a shopping center teaching people about black-grass and her experiences as a lab technician. As part of the promotion for this, SoapBox Science wanted to add a few blog posts from Laura on their page. This sparked a desire for her to continue with her own blog. Her goal is to help educate the general public about the important work lab technicians do.

To end our conversation, we asked Laura what her favorite thing is about fieldwork. She eagerly replied that her favorite thing is that she gets to see so much beautiful scenery, for example, the wonder of, as she described, “standing at the top of a hill looking over a valley with lapwings and sheep all around you; walking through a wheat field and disturbing a hare just a few metres in front of you; walking through woods filled with bluebells to find our quadrats.”

At Conseris, we are happy to help researchers, like Laura, who use their scientific knowledge to solve global problems. The makes data collection more efficient so researchers have more time to dive into these issues. To learn more about Conseris start a free trial today.