The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are the leading science lectures for young people. Each year they bring a different facet of scientific exploration to life through practical demonstrations that fascinate and inform viewers of all ages. They were initiated by world-famous scientist Michael Faraday in 1825, who began his scientific career as a technician.
Every year, two lucky technicians from across the UK are selected to assist a distinguished scientific mind with the delivery of their lectures. This year, Professor Dame Sue Black will be revealing the secrets of forensic science, and she will be joined by Tesoro Monaghan and Matthew Richardson, two talented technicians who have been selected to assist Professor Dame Black with her lectures.
Tesoro, who goes by Tes, is Assistant Engineering Technician (Microprep), Department of Materials Science and Engineering, at The University of Sheffield. She is currently transitioning between two roles in the department. “For the last five years I’ve been running a micro preparation facility - so preparing samples, mounting, grinding and polishing them and then chemically etching them so that we can look at their microstructure. Earlier this year, I got a new job, helping out with demonstrations for students using furnaces and other hot work with glass, molten aluminium and things like that - pretty exciting stuff.”
Tes got into a technical career straight out of her undergraduate degree in Materials, inspired by a technician she worked with on her final year project. “I remember looking at her one day and thinking ‘I could do that’ - that way I get to still do a lot of the practical stuff, learn a lot of new skills, and help support people to achieve these incredible research projects. A job came up working with that technician, and she's been my line manager ever since!”
Matthew studied Physics at Cardiff University. After working for a couple of years as an accountant, Matthew found his way back into the sciences by working one day a week for a former accounting client. From there, he started working as a science technician in a secondary school, before joining the University of Bristol. “I worked for just under a year supporting the biomedical research labs - they do all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff there! They did quite a bit of work on Covid as we’d just gone into lockdown when I joined. That was interesting to be part of.”
Matthew now runs an innovative teaching lab that supports a second-year undergraduate aerospace unit. “The students build UAV wings and fuselages in teams of about thirty-five. I built a new space for them, so they’ve got a dedicated lab. I help organise and run all the inductions and the running of the practical space to complement the lectures that the academics give to the students.”
Both Tes and Matthew are long-time viewers of the Christmas Lectures. “I really love the lectures.” Matthew says. “Being a physicist, I obviously know who Michael Faraday was. I wish I knew the technician placements existed sooner, as I would have applied long before! But I feel quite lucky to have gotten in on first application.”
“I'm just so excited.” Tes says. “We’re a family of scientists and we grew up watching these lectures together. I never thought it would be possible to be a part of something that was such an influential part of growing up for me.”
The Christmas Lectures are the oldest science television series in the world and play a valuable role in engaging young people with science. They have the potential to open their eyes to the vast spectrum of careers in science – including technical careers.
“When I was writing my application for the Lectures, I remembered watching a Christmas Lecture during my GCSEs where this guy popped a ball of a non-Newtonian fluid on the table.” Tes says. “And as the lecture went on, it just drifted down. The guy doing that was a materials engineer. I didn't know I wanted to do Materials Engineering at that point – but something was clearly clicking in my brain!”
“Science communications is really important,” Matthew says. “Physics is a subject area that the public don’t engage with that well. That’s changed over the years with people like Brian Cox, but people don’t always get to know the amazing work and research that’s going on. The Christmas lectures play that really important role. They visually communicate the science so well with the demonstrations - coming up with metaphors and scaling things up. Especially having worked in secondary school delivering science, I’ve seen first-hand how important it is to get the message across to young people, to engage them. They need to see it in action.”
The technician placement on the Christmas Lectures is a valuable opportunity for the contribution of technicians to be seen and celebrated. “One of the things I've always liked about the Christmas Lectures is that the technicians are an important part.” Tes says. “You get to see the technicians making things come together. Sometimes people don't necessarily see all the work that goes into that.”
“Michael Faraday started his career as a technician.” Matthew says. “A lot of the research can’t happen without technical expertise. A lot of it is teamwork between academic and technical colleagues.”
Supporting Professor Dame Black with her forensic lectures will be an interesting departure from both Matthew and Tes’ day jobs.
“It is a totally different area - but there are forensic elements to materials.” Tes reflects. “If you have a part that fails, you could look at this part, and it can tell you story, a forensic story about why a piece has failed. And it's not the same as a human body, but you can look at the microstructure and you can look at the cracks. One of the biggest differences, is that it's going to be a lot more soft and squishy!”
“It’ll be interesting to see which bits she wants to pick up on and how we go about communicating those.” Matthew says. “I’m sure it might get a bit gruesome at points but it’s obviously targeted at kids so we’ll have a strike a balance there!”
“I'm grateful to Technician Commitment, because I wouldn't have come across the opportunity if we didn’t get at least two emails about it from the Technician Commitment.” Tes adds.
Carly Dellar, Programme Manager for the Technician Commitment said: “We’re delighted to be supporting the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for the third year running. The placements offer an excellent opportunity to showcase technical skills and expertise to the public, and provide a wonderful experience for our successful applicants who will learn more about the public engagement of science. The whole team are looking forward to this year’s Lectures with great excitement!”.