Adventures at the Interface

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On Monday 30th June, I attended a cross-disciplinary electron microscopy and light microscopy meeting, prior to this year’s very successful MMC2014. I believe that this meeting represents the first time that members of these two communities have met (formally) in this way with a view to sharing ideas and discussing their visions for imaging in the UK.

Prof Jason Swedlow on behalf of BioimagingUK was pleased to tell us that the group has been granted funding by the BBSRC to facilitate networking and coordination activities and that this was to begin on 1st July. He also highlighted the extent of the group’s efforts to work with Eurobioimaging and that they were well placed to interact with the major UK funding bodies and government. The group are busy preparing a handbook of facilities in the UK and building a data base on the BioimagingUK Wiki page. It is currently Light microscopy, but this will be expanded to Electron Microscopy in the near future. He then handed over to the representative from the EM group.

Professor Jason Swedlow tells the audience what the BioimagingUK group have been doing, image courtesy of RMS

Prof Peter Nellist, who is also current RMS president, gave the report for the EPSRC working group he chairs (the EM group). Prof Nellist began by acknowledging that the groups was somewhat behind the position of the Bioimaging UK, however, he revealed they were applying for network funding from the EPSRC. The group are also trying to collate a database via or KitCat, which is a database developed by Loughborough University. The KitCat database system has now been adopted and implemented by a number of UK higher education institutions, including Loughborough, Nottingham and Leicester, which are part of the M5 universities. This effort is key to avoiding duplication of equipment and is required by funding councils for this reason. These databases allow quick searching of some UK institutions when grant writing, but enable researchers to locate an accessible instrument to gain access. Prof Nellist also reported that the group now has a page on the RMS website and that they plan to use this in a similar way to the LM group, to create a database of  both groups have prepared institutions and equipment.

RMS president, Prof Pete Nellist reports on the activity of the EPSRC working group, image couresy of the RMS 

Prof Chris Hawes also gave a brief address, on the state of plant imaging in the UK. It seems that this particular research area is sometimes is not included in the more mainstream groups, because of the special techniques and protocols used for the imaging of plant tissues. He reported there is a network of group of dedicated researchers, who are enthusiastically paralleling the efforts of the other two groups, albeit on a smaller scale. 

After these presentations there was a discussion session with the three presenters about aligning the groups and the possible formation of ‘Imaging UK’. The afternoon brought a series of presentations by a panel of UK academics, all of whom had experience of working at the ‘interface’, which was followed by further discussions. As someone who regularly crosses the ‘interface’ between life sciences and materials science using electron microscopy, I saw the meeting as life scientists (who typically use LM) and materials scientists (who generally use EM) coming together. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on or which microscopy you use (there are many who use both and a few who use neither). The mood of those present was generally very enthusiastic and it was good to see so many people from different disciplines who clearly felt it was important to bring our efforts closer together.

In addition to the presentations, there was much opportunity for discusion, image couresy of the RMS

Clearly there is something happening within the UK, as people try to collaborate for scientific and financial reasons. There can be no doubt the correlative microscopy is a driving factor, however, three common points were raised:

(i)           Capital expenditure (how to purchase equipment)

(ii)           Organisation and resources access within the UK (how/ where to organise equipment)

(iii)          Retention of expertise and the need for a well defined support system or structure for microscope operators and support staff.

Now I know that you’ll probably have your own ideas on these topics and I’m not sure I can accurately capture all the finer points in this blog, however both groups have prepared documents detailing their thinking, which can be found on their websites. At the turn of the year I wrote about the way equipment is replaced and the importance of both cutting-edge and workhorse kit, so I’m not going to go through it again, however, many of the same points were covered. The organisation of national centres of excellence, with local ‘nodes’ seems to be the prevailing idea with respect to where and how to organise future kit purchases, with consideration given to both high-end, cutting edge microscopes and lower end, ‘workhorse’ kit, which would feed into the high-end ones.

Possibly the most important and interesting point was the issue of support staff who operate microscopes and facilities, who are absolutely vital to the success of the investment in kit. Often grant awards pay for capital investment, with the institution left to pay salary of an operator or similar. The point was made (and rightly so) that equipment bids must be allowed to include salary costs for trained individuals or else instruments risk being underused and poorly maintained (a common occurrence in multi-user facilities). The prevailing thought is that with the proper support of a dedicated operator, instruments can run more smoothly, generate more data more easily. This idea avoids the all-too-common issue of a trained PhD or Post-Doc leaving a research group and taking essential experience with them. I think most people on the ground appreciate this point, bit something new for me was concern for the career progression of the operators. In the UK dedicated support staff are commonly either technical staff or research/ experimental officers. These staff members are not lecturers with independent grants, but often are servicing the needs of many researchers and groups, however, they are often keen to undertake their own research if possible or spend time developing methodologies or hardware. Their positions are often funded by the school or centre for which they work, which may not guarantee a permanent post. The retention of these staff is one issue, but job satisfaction and a feeling of progressing are also important. There was not too much offered in concrete ideas, merely just that this issue was one to be addressed.

As you can see, this was a really inspiring meeting and I hope you enjoyed this brief report. I’m now at M&M in Hartford, CT and keen to see if there may be a similar trend within the US microscopy communities. I hope you check out the links in this blog and that you’ll contribute to the discussion with the relevant group. See you next time.

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