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What’s it like to be an animal technician?

Studying the genetics of the laboratory mouse is crucial to understanding the function of genes in disease, and developing treatments for them. Isabel Baker talks to Greg Joynson, animal technician at the Mary Lyon Centre at MRC Harwell, to find out how the skills of dedicated animal technicians are key to such research.

Greg in the Mary Lyon Centre's mouse house (Image copyright: Mary Lyon Centre)

Greg in the Mary Lyon Centre’s mouse house (Image copyright: Mary Lyon Centre)

How did you become an animal technician?

I learnt about the industry through my brother, who also works here. I have an MSc in Industrial Product Design but wanted a complete career change, so arrived at the MLC with no previous experience.

What qualifications are required to become an animal technician?

The basic requirement is five GCSEs. I received training in how to handle mice and look after them. I’ve done a lot of extra training including the mandatory Home Office modules, a level 2 NVQ and a level 3 CPD course in animal technology. I have picked up a lot of knowledge on the job over the past six years.

How much time do you spend caring for the 54,000 mice at the MLC?

Looking after the mice is a 365 day a year operation! Generally I work a five-day week, from 8am–4pm every day, although this depends upon the animals, which often require more care, and therefore longer shifts. We have rota shifts on weekends, bank holidays and public holidays.

What is your day-to-day routine?

Every animal has to be checked daily, so the first thing we do is cage checks and cage changing. Once pups have reached 18-21 days old they are big enough to be weaned away from their parents and re-housed. I often do biopsies which involves taking samples for the scientists or for the genotyping team, to identify the mice which have been genetically modified. I run the ‘circadian rhythms’ suite which carries out research into sleep cycles. I work closely with the scientists to organise which studies to set up and when.

Does your knowledge and expertise differ to that of the researchers you work with?

There are different skill-sets involved. As animal technicians, we know a lot more about the basic husbandry of the animals — how to handle the mice and look after their daily needs. Most technicians take on the management of their own colony and both set up, and look after the experiments for the scientists. Keeping in touch and working closely with our scientific colleagues is therefore important to ensure that we don’t breed too many animals.

Has your role changed?

Yes it evolved quickly and I went in to a more specialised role, in the circadian rhythms suite, within six months. I now help to train people in this group. The role is continually adapting and with legislation changes, requirements change. We try to improve our procedures as much as we can; refinements are going on all the time. The way we approach breeding has changed a lot. We now try to focus on cohort breeding — breeding a specific number of mice for a specific project to avoid overbreeding.

Are you an animal lover?

Yes, I think pretty much everybody who works here is; most people have their own pets. I think having empathy for the animals definitely helps — it increases people’s desire to work and stay. Personally I’m very interested in the welfare standards of the animals.

Do you feel that your work is recognised in the research you support?

Definitely — I talk to the MRC scientists here at Harwell a lot and they are always very appreciative of the work we do and how we provide support.

Do you think your role will continue to evolve?

In the past 10 years we have seen a lot of changes. I think it will definitely continue to evolve with the emergence of new technologies — it will be interesting to see where we are 10 years from now.

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