December 4, 2018, by Lindsay Brooke

Technician on the run – building props for the Royal Institution Christmas lectures

He’s up to his eyes in papier mache, fabric cutting and foam boards – but he’s not giving much else away! What he is doing is under wraps until the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are televised on the Tuesday 11, Thursday 13 and Saturday 15 December.  

Tom Clayton, a technician in the School of Chemistry, normally trains researchers in state-of-the-art instrumentation in the GSK Carbon Neutral Building. For the next few days he’s building ribbons of DNA, fly suits and other scientific props after answering the call for technical support for the UK’s flagship science series and landing a placement as a runner.  

He said: “It is a dream come true! I have been a fan of the series since I was a young boy and have many fond memories of watching the series. So, I feel very lucky and honoured to be part of a great tradition and excited to be working with all the talented people like Fran Scott, Alice Roberts and Aoife McLysaght. 

This year biological anthropologist, author and broadcaster, Professor Alice Roberts and genetics expert Professor Aoife McLysaght and will bring our evolutionary story to life to answer the fundamental question – Who Am I? 

They will take viewers on an immersive voyage through our shared evolutionary past and asking challenging ethical questions about what the future holds. And that’s where Tom will come in. 

He said: “It’s all very ‘Blue Peter’ but everything is going to plan so far though later on we will be working with children and animals! Some stuff is secret though so we can’t say too much.” 

Tom Clayton prepping props for the RI Christmas Lectures

The Christmas Lectures were started by Michael Faraday (who began his career as a technician at the Royal Institution) in 1825.  

The Technician Commitment, a university and research initiative, has teamed up with the Royal Institution to offer technical colleagues at signatory universities the opportunity to work on the 2018 Christmas Lectures. It’s a unique development opportunity for technical colleagues to gain insight and experience of science communication on a high-profile stage.
Tom and a fellow technician from Nottingham Trent University won places beating off stiff competition. He said: “There’s a lot to do and learn but generally we will be making props of which are many and varied – for example ribbons of DNA, billion-year long timelines, fly suits, even an egg cup for an Emu egg! Once we have made all the props we will be assisting with the filming, attending rehearsals and hopefully bringing some of our props into the theatre.”

The materials might be a little different but there are many similarities with the day job. He said: “I do some demo work for open days, setting up chemistry demos, blowing things up etc..! All technical work though requires innovation, thinking on your feet, problem solving and working with other people.

Tom is working with Fran Scott, who has the enviable job of finding new ways of bringing scientific ideas to life for the Royal Institutions audiences. As well as coming up with the ideas, she has to turn them into reality, and keep everyone safe while she does so! 

The picture shows Tom next to Lucy (Australopithecus). 


Posted in partnershipsScienceStaff