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My career: How I became a facilities scientist

My career: How I became a facilities scientist

My career: How I became a facilities scientist

Have you ever wondered what a career in a facility looks like? Or what an electron microscopist does all day? Maybe you are just curious to find out more about who I am.

Before I start it is only polite to introduce myself. My name is Kirsty MacLellan-Gibson, and I am based within the imaging facility working as the senior electron microscopist. I have been at the ڹϳϱϹ for 18 months, which when written down sounds longer than it feels. I did not set out to work in a facility. In fact, I didn't set out with a clear career path in mind, but through serendipity and pushing myself to outside my comfort zone, I have ended up with a job that I love.

It was clear from a young age that I was going to be a scientist; as a young child I drove my parents to distraction by always destroying things trying to find out how they worked or to see what was inside. By the age of seven they managed to control it a little by buying me my first microscope. I still remember hunting for things in the garden to put in the microscope. Although, to be fair I am still doing it, and the ڹϳϱϹ’s Schools’ Day allows me to share my joy in ڹϳϱϹing that pollen is really spiky and mosquitos are quite beautiful (if you coat them in metal and look at them in an electron microscope – any other time then they are just little flying bloodsuckers!). At secondary school I had some wonderful science teachers, especially Mrs Baker and Mr McRichie, who really encouraged all of us to develop into experimentalists. My proudest achievement was wining the chemistry prize during my A-levels, though looking back on it now it was maybe just relief that an ‘incident’ with gun cotton was not held against myself and the rest of the upper sixth form chemistry class.

My grades were good enough to go to Glasgow University to study Experimental Pathology. However, in my second year they introduced a new Virology undergraduate course, which I switched to. I enjoyed studying in the Virology department so much I decided to stay there and complete a PhD. Luck must have been on my side as a newly promoted researcher was looking for a PhD student to study virus structure by Electron Microscopy (EM). I joined the Bhella/Yeo lab to study the nucleocapsid of Respiratory Syncytial Virus using cryo-TEM and three-dimensional reconstructions.

I think that I survived my PhD relatively unscathed, considering I never saw any light for at least six months a year. I started EM before the adoption of digital cameras so my daily routine from October to March was: get up and go to work (in the dark), collect images on the microscope (in the dark), develop films (in the dark), go home (in the dark). The crowning glory of my PhD was the calculation of a protein structure 20Å resolution, at the time this was good, now this resolution is achievable in less than three days!

One dark and cold afternoon in Glasgow I took a call from a lab in Switzerland. The call was from Professor Jacques Dubochet, joint winner of the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 2017, offering me a post-doctoral position in his lab in Lausanne. I moved to Switzerland in late 2004 to learn a highly specialist technique called CEMOVIS (Cryo-Electron Microscopy of Vitreous Section) invented by Jacques.

The technique involves freezing cells into a glassy ice, cutting them very thinly with a diamond knife then taking pictures with a cryo-TEM; all without warming the sample above -140°C. The first few months in Lausanne were probably the most frustrating of my life with hours spent every day practising the technique to find out that I had melted it or destroyed the sample in some other way. However, with perseverance I was not only able to learn it, but master it. During my time in Lausanne I participated in many training courses to teach others how to cut these sections, and this started a love of teaching microscopy and sample preparation.

After Jacques retired, I moved to Paris in a return to more classical cryo-TEM, I joined the lab of the late Dr Nicolas Boisset to study extremophile virus structure. Alongside my lab work I increased my teaching duties, in preparation for applying for a Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) position, and taught a mixture of undergraduate classes and post graduate practical courses at Universités Pierre-et-Marie-Curie, Paris-Saclay, and EMBL. As I started to tackle the mountain of bureaucracy that my application required, I received an email from a small government lab in the UK inviting me to apply for a position. Intrigued I applied and this started my move from academia to facilities.

At the start of 2009 I joined the now defunct National ڹϳϱϹ for Biological Standards and Controls (NIBSC), now the South Mimms labs at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). I initially started as a facility scientist before taking over as the Head of the Biological Imaging Group, then eventually the Proteomics Facility too. The Biological Imaging Group was responsible for offering high end imaging solutions for the institute and housed a cryo-TEM, cryo-SEM and multiphoton confocal microscope. The majority of projects centred around developing novel assays to characterise vaccines, improving production processes, troubleshooting product failures, and develop biological reference materials. My repertoire techniques had now expanded quite considerable adding Tokuyasu cryo-sectioning, room temperature sectioning, cryo-SEM, cryo-electron tomography, Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy (STEM) and confocal microscopy. Then COVID struck and all focus changed. During the pandemic I was lucky in more ways than one. Not only have I (still) not knowingly contracted COVID, but I was privileged to be working as part of the UK pandemic response. My skills and knowledge of techniques enabled me to be involved in many aspects of the response, including the development of run control standards for both PCR and lateral flow tests, batch release of the first mRNA vaccines and QC on the adenovirus based vaccines, and then longer term development of suitable animal models for vaccine testing. I am still amazed by how many incredible people I met during that time and by how adaptable and supportive people were. The only downside to this was missing out on extra time spent with my family (though I think I dodged a bullet missing home schooling!). When we all started to return to normal, budget cuts loomed and unfortunately in the post COVID era 20% of all posts were made redundant.

At the end of August 2022, I joined the ڹϳϱϹ ڹϳϱϹ Imaging facility to further develop electron microscopy at the ڹϳϱϹ, and to learn some more EM techniques – Focused Ion Beam- Scanning Electron Microscopy (FIB-SEM), array tomography (AT), and image processing for the large datasets these techniques produce. These techniques along with the new sample preparation equipment, installed last month, will massively improve the capabilities of the ڹϳϱϹ. The next steps will be to develop and roll out training to make the best use of all the fantastic equipment we now have!