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60 seconds with John Prentice

John Prentice is the Workshop Manager in the Mechanical Workshop.

As well as discovering the remarkable work of the Workshop Team, this interview also highlights John's career journey so far, his love of bike riding and running, and reveals some amazing personal achievements.

 

What does your role entail?

I have managed the Mechanical Workshop for the Department of Oncology since it formed in 2008. My role in the Department involves working with Scientists, Scientific Research Facilities and Students helping to design, develop and manufacture many bespoke pieces of equipment. As part of the Workshop team we also do a lot of behind the scenes work supporting the facilities team to keep things running smoothly. That new bench, repaired lab equipment or serviced Aspirator pump that magically appears is normally thanks to our team.

Who is involved in your team and how does your work feed into the Department

The Workshop team consists of Gerry Shortland, myself and our Apprentice Workshop Technician Kyle Hallett. Between us we have over eighty years’ engineering experience to fall back on. Over the years we have had many requests for help in solving a wide range of problems. Through our practical experience and problem solving mind set we pride ourselves on rarely being defeated.

The Mechanical Workshop engages in a range of collaborations and projects including developments to the Small Animal Radiation Research Platform (SARRP), equipment for calibration of α–particle energy measurement system, and apparatus for novel fluorescence image guided surgery technologies. Through collaborations with the Imaging Core in the Radiobiology Research Institute a range of systems have been developed for use in PET, SPECT and CT Scanners.

A recent example of our partnerships involved assisting the Advanced Technology Development Group in the design and manufacture of the Urethra Fibre Light Source. The purpose of the UFLS is to illuminate the urethra using near infrared (NIR) invisible light. This compact unit is able to highlight the urethra and alert the surgeon when a surgical procedure is at risk of damaging the urethra.

In addition to the work carried out within the Department, the Workshop has provided services for groups within the wider University community who do not have access to workshop facilities. Recently we have collaborated on the design and manufacture of specialised waveguide and filter panels for the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics (DPAG) and the Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain (FMRIB).We have even undertaken work for institutes further afield, more recently the Department of Radiation Oncology in Nijmegen.

One of the major benefits to having an onsite Mechanical Workshop is that we can help at all stages from concept through to final manufacture of bespoke items. Working very closely with the end user in this way helps to identify problems during early stages of design, saving on production costs. Development of custom-built equipment can be time consuming and expensive when alterations have to be outsourced. Another significant advantage is the speed at which we can turn jobs around. There have been many mornings when a scientist has come charging into the Workshop with an idea and within a matter of hours we have been able to design, build and test their latest device. 

Is there such a thing as a ‘typical day’ in the workshop?

It’s a bit of a cliché but there is no ordinary day and the thing I love about our job is that we never know what is going to come through the door. Part of a day might be spent advising a researcher about the most cost effective way to achieve their goal and helping to turn their ideas into detailed engineering drawings. Later on we could be asked to inspect and repair a piece of broken lab equipment or machine a new tailor made fixture for a microscope. Unlike working in industry there is a huge amount of variety involved in our work and it is always great to get feedback from genuinely satisfied clients.

Tell us about your career journey so far

From a fairly young age I knew I was interested in how things were made and what made them work. My Dad was an Aircraft Engineer and he used to bring home Engineering drawings or components that I would end up drawing on or dismantling. At school I enjoyed metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing so I was naturally drawn towards an Apprenticeship career path. I completed a four year Mechanical Engineering Apprenticeship in Mould and Tool making and continued to work in industry for a few years. When a slightly different opportunity came up in Scientific Instrument making at the Gray Cancer Institute I grabbed the chance and never looked back.  

One of the most satisfying elements of my career has been seeing the Department begin to recognise the importance of Apprenticeships. In 2015 the Workshop saw the arrival of our first Apprentice Engineering Technician Kyle Hallett. A year later, Kyle was awarded the University of Oxford Advanced Apprenticeship award and was a highly commended runner up in the Oxfordshire Apprenticeship awards. Kyle was the Department’s first Apprentice and will ensure continuity in the Workshop expertise.

When you aren't diligently dealing with work matters, what keeps you busy?

As I’m not getting any younger I appreciate the benefits associated with keeping fit and love the sense of freedom I get from riding bikes. Last year I rode over 5,000 miles including a small mountain in Portugal. This year I’m riding the Passo dello Stelvio the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps, at over 9,000 feet I’m assured its brutal. Over the last few years I have also got into running a bit more and recently completed a Half Marathon. Probably biting off more than I can chew I’ve just started taking swimming coaching and hope to take part in a Triathlon in the near future.

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