After eight transformative years at the helm of Techniquest, Lesley Kirkpatrick is retiring.

Faced with a number of challenges — from spearheading the rejuvenating Science Capital extension, to seeing the site through a global pandemic — she has ushered the charity into a new era, picking up plaudits and awards for excellence along the way.

But before Lesley’s able to enjoy her well-earned rest, she sat down with us to share some of the memories she’ll be taking with her — and just why the ant colony is her all-time favourite exhibit.

What has been the biggest accomplishment of your time as CEO?

Probably the biggest thing is getting the Science Capital done, given the pandemic that delayed it opening and finishing. And the reason that’s so important, in my mind, is that was about the future of the charity. If we hadn’t done that, we might not have had a future — it was that scary.

Are there any events that stick out to you as favourites?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tim Peake’s visit after returning from the International Space Station. To get the opportunity to host such an accomplished astronaut at Techniquest back when I first started in 2016 was fantastic. There were local primary school children in attendance for his talk, and I’ve no doubt some of the kids there were inspired by his story, which reinforced why I decided to apply for the position.

Being able to inspire people, especially young people, with science has always been at the forefront of what we do, so to see it in practice so early into my tenure was very fulfilling.

What’s your favourite exhibit?

I was going to say Orbits, but then I do like the ants. When I first came, the ants were in a colony in a different part — a much smaller tank. I think the ants in their current position are my favourite.

When we built them the new colony, we wanted to be able to see all their activity through the pipes, because that’s fascinating. It might sound strange given all the other stuff that we’ve got on site, but I do like them.

When we had several lockdowns during Covid, we all took turns maintaining them in pairs. So, there was a time where [Head of Education] Andrea and I did it.

We were both masked up, and we had to top up the water, feed them… it was great to be so hands-on, and I think a lot of my fondness towards them stems from that time.

Could you talk about the difficulties of navigating Techniquest through the pandemic?

I was very lucky, because when we went into that first lockdown, I was having regular calls with Steve Best, who was the Chair of the Board, and former Vice Chair Steve Bowden. They made a big difference because they supported me when we were wondering how we were going to get through it.

I suppose you ended up getting into a bit of a pattern, so even though initially it felt like you couldn’t see the wood for the trees, with many employees furloughed and everything so uncertain, we were able to come in our pairs and do everything we could short of re-opening our doors.

We only had a short stint in late 2020, when we were able to open in November of that year and had to close again 10 days later. It was only 50 people in the morning and 50 in the afternoon, but I still remember those first 50 people coming in for the morning session. And again, everybody was socially distanced and super cautious in terms of our interaction. That was really quite a nice moment.

But if I look back, I remember us just getting into a routine. You look back now and it feels like a lifetime ago, but at the initial stages it was scary. It was scary for everyone who thought ‘I don’t know how we’re going to get through this’. But of course, we did. And the team that were there — many of whom, especially of the senior team, are still here today, were very committed.

When did you make the decision to retire?

It was a few months ago now. My husband and I talk about everything, and I’m a planner by profession. It’s endemic in our lives because that’s what we both did, career-wise. I plan things — especially significant decisions like this one — well in advance, so there was no way I was going to take a decision like that lightly.

We were talking about it then, and the joint conclusion was that I was going tell [Chair of the Board] Karen as soon as possible so that the Board had plenty of time to select the best candidate to take Techniquest forward, and so we could make the transition process as smooth as possible.

What will be the first thing you do when you’re officially retired?

There are so many friends that I can’t wait to hook up with. I don’t go out socialising and having a wild time, and consequently when I’m not working, I want to have the time, at my pace, to catch up with people that I haven’t seen or had time for. Friends and family are so important, so I’m looking forward to spending time with my husband and my dog Pluto visiting places around the UK — particularly west Wales.

And finally, an opportunity to say a word to your colleagues over the years.

We have a fantastic team, one small but perfectly formed. It could be bigger, and hopefully with Sue coming in, she’ll be able to grow it. They look after our audience and our customers really well and I’m really grateful for that, and I’m sure they’ll continue to do an amazing job over the next few months and years. I wish everybody — our live science hosts, technicians, back of house departments and visitors — all the best, as well as the Board and new CEO Sue, who I’m sure will be fantastic in the role.

Thank you to all who make Techniquest what it is.

We would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Lesley for eight unforgettable years as Chief Executive of Techniquest, and thank her for all her work in transforming the charity to what it is today.