Electron Microscopy Facility Manager
Sir William Dunn School of Pathology
Tell us a bit about your role
I run the Electron Microscopy (EM) Facility at the Dunn School. This facility is a hub for biological EM at Oxford University, providing training and EM services to researchers in areas ranging from biomedicine and cell biology, right through to Earth sciences and physics. My role is diverse, including a mix of academic, technical and administrative components, which makes it interesting and very rewarding. I am responsible for maintaining our EMs, managing facility staff, coordinating user projects, advising and training users, scientific collaborations involving EM, invoicing and budgeting, lab safety, giving EM lectures and developing new EM sample preparation and imaging techniques.
I’m from Australia and actually started out as a plant cell biologist. I did my PhD at Sydney University on plant hormone transport and never imagined that I would end up running an EM unit in the Pathology Department of Oxford University! That said, my metamorphosis from researcher to professional electron microscopist happened fairly organically. I used confocal microscopy and EM extensively in my PhD, then later on during my post doc at the Umeå Plant Science Centre in Sweden, and I found that microscopy was an area of my research that I particularly enjoyed. When I returned to sunny Australia from a few years in the snowy wilds of north Sweden, I joined the Australian Centre for Microscopy & Microanalysis (ACMM) as a member of the technical team, specialising in biological electron microscopy. I spent three years at the ACMM learning as much as I could about EM and even ended up meeting my future husband there too. When he was offered a PI job in the Materials Department at Oxford, we packed up our flat (and our cat!) and took the leap to move to the UK! I knew I wanted to stay in biological EM, but jobs in this field are relatively rare, so I couldn’t believe my luck when this EM facility manager job at the Dunn School came up a few months after we arrived in Oxford. I’ve now been in this role for just over 8 years and consider myself incredibly fortunate to work in such a great department, doing what I truly enjoy.
Electron microscopy (EM) is integral to many aspects of research within the Medical Sciences. From screening purified preps of extracellular vesicles and α-synuclein, to assessing changes in organelle architecture in knockout or drug-treated culture cells/rodent tissue, and through to diagnostic EM of patient erythroblasts, EM provides vital resolution and ultrastructural information not possible with other techniques. My role helps to facilitate a wide range of research across the Medical Sciences Division by providing an accessible and efficient biological EM Facility which is open to all.
What is the most meaningful aspect of your work?
There are two aspects that I find most meaningful about my work. The first is being able to train students and postdocs in how to use EMs and related sample preparation techniques, and see them genuinely enjoy developing these skills and expertise. The second is the opportunity to contribute to such a diverse range of important and interesting research across Oxford, particularly within the Medical Sciences. With each project, I always learn something new about biomedicine and I find projects with a direct path to clinical impact particularly rewarding to work on.
Can you tell us about something you've done, contributed to that you're most proud of?
People are often daunted by the specimen preparation techniques and complex instrumentation involved with EM, or may simply be unaware of the ways EM techniques can be applied to, and benefit, their research. Coming into this role, my aim was to ensure that biological EM was available to anyone who needed it at Oxford University (and beyond!). To do this, I updated our equipment, actively worked to increase awareness of EM through seminars and courses, improved our sample preparation protocols and training workflows, and generally tried to make the EM Facility as accessible as possible. I am very proud that my efforts, and those of my staff past and present (Anna Pielach, Alex Fyfe, Adam Costin and Raman Dhaliwal), are paying off. For instance, when I first started, the EM Facility had around 25 users per year, mostly from the Dunn School. In 2019 we had 133 users from over 21 departments (9 within the Medical Sciences!).
What changes would you most like to see in the Medical Sciences in the next 100 years?
Considering how far we’ve come in the last century, my mind boggles at what the Medical Sciences could look like in the next 100 years. But certainly in the shorter term, I would like to see more women in leadership positions within the Division (for example, as Departmental heads), an end to the gender pay gap and more opportunities for people in academic support roles to receive academic recognition for their work (for example, to lead equipment funding proposals).