Bio-Imaging Unit Manager at the University of Newcastle.
“I didn’t set out to become a facility manager, but I’m glad I did. There’s nothing like a researcher seeing something that they hadn’t before because of advice you’ve given them or a tweak you’ve made to the equipment.”
Start of career
Career in brief
I did my undergraduate degree in physiology at the University of Bristol, which sparked my interest in research. I followed this up with a four-year PhD in molecular physiology at the University of Liverpool. I chose this particular course because it offered an extended programme allowing me to gain experience in different projects before focusing on one subject.
My PhD project was multidisciplinary, using microscopy to understand intracellular calcium signalling in the pancreas. I particularly enjoyed using cutting-edge (at the time!) microscopy techniques, developing my own and adapting them to answer biological questions.
After Liverpool, I took on a two-year post-doc, again in the field of calcium signalling, at the University of Cambridge. I then returned to Liverpool for a second postdoc to investigate cancer signalling where I also found myself taking on a more active role running a small departmental microscope facility. Throughout these projects, microscopy has always been a focus and in my second post-doc, I started to see the potential in facility management as a career. I found teaching people to use the equipment extremely rewarding and enjoyable. A job managing the Bio-Imaging Unit at Newcastle came up and I jumped at the opportunity.
How I spend my days
It varies! Though I would say around half my time is spent working with researchers on their projects and teaching them how to use the equipment. I often conduct workshops to train large groups; last year around 250 researchers accessed our facility. Their backgrounds ranged from material science to bacterial cell biology.
My remaining time involves facility admin, and instrument quality control and maintenance – although less rewarding, it is an essential part of the job.
The facility is in the process of expanding; more equipment, space and staff so at the moment, it is an exciting place to be.
In my academic career, discovering and publishing something new as well as presenting and discussing my findings with peers. Within facility management my highlights are when I have had significant input into a project; the researcher seeing something that they hadn’t before because of advice I’ve given them or a tweak I’ve made to the equipment.
I’d say balancing the speculative and high-risk nature of my PhD with the need to generate high-impact publications. But my PhD also sparked my interest in technology and so without that I might not be where I am today.
My most valuable skills
It’s quite a multidisciplinary role. A broad appreciation of the science (in my case, biology) is essential although you do not need to be an expert in all areas. You also need to be a good listener to understand what the researcher is trying to do and why so that the technology can be best applied. The ability to communicate is equally important as complex concepts and techniques need to be introduced to non-specialists. You need to have an inquisitive nature to keep on top of new imaging technologies and techniques.
What inspires me
My university lecturers who first got me engaged in science. And my PhD supervisor, Professor Peter Cobbold, got me thinking ‘outside of the box’. Peter is well known for developing novel technologies and approaches to answer important biological questions: much of his lab was home-built!
Words of wisdom
If you are certain that an academic research career is for you, do not be disheartened if you’re knocked back or have papers rejected — try and see past that and stick at it. But do explore options such as becoming a technology specialist or facility manager because they can be equally rewarding and still allow you to input into research projects.
I want to spend the next five years making sure that the facility is successful; both in contributing to scientific papers and ensuring the facility financial model is effective. The natural progression would be to move into a more senior managerial role but as this will obviously distance me from the research and technology, I’m not too sure if that’s the right step for me at the moment.
Find out more
The Wiki page for BioImagingUK, the organisation for UK scientists that develop, use or manage imaging solutions for life sciences research.
Careers guidance issued by BioImagingUK.