Olympic Inspired Microscopy

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The Rio Olympics may be a distant memory for most of us, however, I believe some important lessons on future investment can be learned. I'm sure it will not have escaped you attention that team GB did very well in both Olympics and Paralympics. This is a fabulous achievement for such a small country when compared with countries such as China, USA and Australia. Some people have hailed the success (GB were second in the medals table) as the result of investment in the 2012 London games, and I'm in broad agreement with this.

Since before the London games we saw investment in infrastructure and facilities that goes with ousting the games, but also in supporting athletes. There was funding to allow more athletes to train full time rather than hold down a job and train before/after work in addition to on weekends. It was also pleasing to see success was also forthcoming in sports that we were not typically strong in, and this has also be due to investment in funding and coaching. It is important to point out that facilities are just the beginning and that the coaching staff, as well as the innate ability of the athletes will be key.


Facilities are the foundation.

If we apply these observations to the case of microscopy related performance, we can propose that any country, university, company, or other workplace that wants to perform on a national or global stage should invest in and subsequently maintain facilities that underpin the users who will be using it and producing world class outputs. This may be choosing to specialise in particular areas of microscopy, defined by the focus of the company or research institute, or to act as a broad service to many users in the case of a central facility. In any case not only must the kit be suited to its application, but it should be supported either by in house service or via service contracts from the vendor or a third party. Clearly this much more than just buying a load of microscopes and requires the support staff, education and training, in a similar way that we compared it to the sports analogy.


Modern day microscopy is complicated. I doubt that very few of us can just sit at a microscope and know how to use it (there may be some of you out there), and in the majority of cases you'll need some training. If the equipment is new, that will likely come from the company installing it, however, having dedicated staff to run the equipment will mean that this training can be passed on to newer users over the course of years.  Having permanent staff is crucial as there is the danger that 'how to' knowledge is lost when a PhD student or post doc moves on. Applications 'know-how' is also something that is overlooked, specifically not just how to operate, but rather typical usage on a range of sample types and any required preparation. This is another key advantage of having dedicated staff, who can accrue this knowledge and apply it as well as passing it to other suitable users. Using the sports analogy, these trained experts would be the coaches, demonstrating, training and supporting new microscopists as they learn to operate kit and acquire their information. We can imagine that there might be specialist centres around the country for particular microscopy techniques who can advise on their application.

Supporting talent

There are some people who just have a talent, maybe it's for sports, maybe for microscopy, they just get it and it's clear they are enthusiastic and capable of doing what is demanded to get good images and data. The key thing must be to encourage this talent. Whether the talent is recognised by one of the routes listed above, or some other mechanism, supporting (financially) people to develop their skills sand usage or microscopy scan only benefit the individual and the supporting institutions. A skilled operator or pioneer of a technique that solves a specific problem is worth much more than their salary, as their skills can support others in their immediate workplace, but also by what they can enable for others outside in terms of training, application of their skills to samples and any developments that arise from their dedication and skills in their chosen area of expertise. In the past 15 years we have seen the rise of super-resolution microscopy from a range of dedicated, passionate and skilled researchers. Imagine where we would be if these individuals had not been able to pursue this work for lack of funding or the patience of their employers / funders.

M&A supports emerging talent through sponorship of the poster prizes at the MMC conference series [RMS]

Inspiring the next generation

A big focus of the London Olympics was inspiring the next generation. It should be obvious that engaging and inspiring younger generations to follow in the footsteps of the current stars will yield a stream of talent who stand to inherit the stage when their time comes. In this case the microscopy equivalent is promotion of microscopy and its capabilities and applications to all levels of people, from primary schools to members of the public who may not have had an education on microscopy in school. Some Olympians start as children and work up to the global stage, but some do start later in life or move disciplines, realising that they have taken at a later stage. In either case, ways to get into microscopy should be available at a range of levels, which can include the traditional use of a microscope for a research project (final year research, MRes, PhD), all of these are quite higher education based, however, something such as an apprenticeship which equips a school or college leaver to develop skills in microscopy is a value and important path into microscopy. This could be a follow on from a hobbyist or interested party into a role as a technician, but also be the starting point for further progression to more senior roles in applications development, sales or management.

Dr Peter O'Toole inspiring attendees at a workshop [RMS]

I'm in danger of this turning into a rant if I continue much longer or run the risk that you'll get bored and close your browser tab. Needless to say I'm a firm believer that people are what makes microscopy, whether by those running the kit, designing the future kit or training others to operate them. In my next blog, I'm going to look at the future role of the microscopist the increasing importance of knowing which the best technique to apply to a problem is.


Chris Parmenter

Editor, Microscopy & Analysis


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