Core Team Spotlight: Meet Laboratory Technician Alec Samler

I’m a local lad who grew up in the shadow of Harwell site in Chilton. At the time I left school aged 16 in 1978, AERE Harwell was a major employer in the area. Anyone with a moderate aptitude for maths, science or practical subjects was encouraged by their careers advisor to apply to ‘The Atomic’. I was one of the dozen or so Laboratory Trainees taken on that year. So I sort of fell into the Lab Technician role rather than actually planning it, though I was fairly certain I wanted to do something practical.

I spent 2 years as a trainee alternating my time between the site’s training school, Newbury FE College and four on site work placements. We even spent a few days learning basic glass blowing in the site glass blowing workshop!

After my training, I was initially employed in the Metallurgy Division and later Materials Development Division in a number of roles as a ‘pair of hands’. Eventually I was engaged on a project led by the late Dr Keith Scott who headed the Thermal Spraying section. Keith asked the powers that be if he could keep me on once the project ended and thus began my 25 odd year career Plasma Spraying. Initially I was manufacturing feedstock for spraying and later started manually spraying ceramic coatings and near net shapes.

At the time I joined them the Thermal Spraying section was making money rather than just spending it. They had developed a technique to manufacture specialist furnace tubes used in the production of fibre optic cables. So we were well placed in comparison to many units on site when it was decided to privatise part of UKAEA into a new organisation called AEA Technology. By this point, we were also producing coatings for F1 and WRC teams which included developing a method to coat carbon fibre composite. This was the area of work I was most involved with.

After some twists and turns, we left Harwell for a new location in Abingdon in 2010. By 2015 we were doing more and more OEM work and I found the repetitive nature of this work wasn’t for me, so I decided it was time for a change which is how I came to work at Research Complex.

One of the things which attracted me to the job was the fact that Research Complex catered for both Physical and Life Sciences which I thought would bring an interesting mix of work to the job and I can’t say I’ve been disappointed. I’ve always thought that there are ideas and methods you can apply from one discipline or industry to another if you can find the right jigsaw piece to fit in the right hole. Cross fertilization is a wonderful thing.

A typical day? It’s a bit of a cliché to say so but no two days are the same. Sure, I have my regular tasks like Liquid Nitrogen fills, chemical waste collections, changing gas bottles and replacing materials in the 3D printer but you never know when you might be called away to sort out a fault on a piece of equipment, deal with a water leak or an alarm, etc. I like such hands on work as it gets me up and moving and offers me plenty of variety. I couldn’t sit at a desk all day. Even on my free time I spend 1 or 2 hours a day walking, running or cycling.

What do I enjoy most? Again a bit of a cliché but I must say it’s the people. The core team I am part of are very supportive of each other and we all muck in and cover each other’s roles when and where we can. It’s also a privilege to meet so many clever and interesting people from across the globe who make up our ‘clientele’.

The hardest thing I find to do is say ‘no’ to a user. Sadly sometimes Health and Safety, lack of resources or time demands it.

A time that will always stay with me was back when we were first developing coatings for the motorsport industry and we used to have a regular delivery driver from the McLaren F1 team called Ray. Ray had something of the aging rock star look about him (think 1970’s Rod Stewart, mullet hair and beaded necklace/bangles). Anyway, one Friday evening I was sitting in front of the box watching ‘Never Mind The Buzzcocks’ a few hours after handing over the components for the current GP to Ray when the ‘Identity Parade’ part of the program comes up. And lo and behold who walks out but Ray in his McLaren workwear with the other four victims to endure that week’s humiliation from the panel. It turned out that Ray was the lead singer for The Nashville Teens who had a top ten hit in the early sixties, Tobacco Road! This wasn’t Ray’s first association with Harwell as there was  a Nashville Teens gig at the Harwell Social Club in the 1970’s which the AERE Facebook page uncovered not so long ago!

Image: Copyright of Research Complex at Harwell