Here is the second part of the interview with Peter O’Toole, Director of the Imaging and Cytometry Laboratory at University of York. After learning more about The Microscopist podcast in the first part of the interview, we now focus on his work running an imaging facility.
When did you decide to move from academia into managing a core facility?
My second postdoc was funded by the Wellcome Trust. The position came with equipment funds for a new confocal microscope and a new flow cytometer, and the postdoc was expected to work with scientists to get the best out of these systems. This was a wonderful job, because I could apply the technology and chase academics in the departments that had samples so I could do more with the systems. Almost a postdoc without portfolio! I could do FRAP and FRET on a confocal, which back in the 90s was pretty rare. Talking with my supervisor, Prof. Richard Cherry, about my academic career, he asked me, “if you want to be a lecturer, what are you going to study? What’s the biological question that you’re going to address?” I knew that carrying on with my protein, spectrin would be short lived; it was the technology that I wanted to follow. He said, “Well, you can’t follow a lectureship in technology, that doesn’t exist, you won’t get funding.” I then went to an EMBO course at EMBL on advanced microscopy and wow, that was it – a whole new world opened up. It was microscopy at the forefront of microscopy. They had Ernst Stelzer, Stephan Hell, and Petra Schwille talking, but they were also hands-on. That showed me I really wanted to go with the technology. I then started looking for a position and saw that the core facility manager post at University of York had research involved. I thought ‘this is it’. I sent the CV, I think on a Friday, got asked to do interviews the next Thursday and was offered the job the following Friday morning!
The role of the imaging facilities is changing from offering just a service to assisting and guiding in a range of new technologies that need more skilled people to run them. How do you see the need for creating a defined career path in imaging facilities?
It’s an interesting point. I never saw that there wasn’t a career path to start with. I was completely oblivious and naive. I just went for what I wanted to get out of the job, and a career path developed. I think University of York has been terrific, even if they didn’t originally see it as a career path. We’ve been very fortunate, and I think more universities need to stop seeing an imaging facility as a service. My team are very skilled, driven and motivated. But York also pays well and recognises the importance of these roles which helps us to attract good staff and have good staff retention. It was one of the first signatories of the Technicians Commitment, but I would argue we had much already in place within the Technology Facility at York.
I think maintaining expertise is essential for the cost-effectiveness of a core facility. You don’t want a brain drain every time a postdoc or someone leaves. Supporting the posts to make them financially attractive and providing a career path is really important. This enables a facility to recruit and retain the best people. Obviously, there are limits, but the diversity of the roles, the ability to learn new technologies, attend conferences etc also helps with retention. I also believe that the roles can feel valued, not only within the facility, but by the users that they closely alongside and often seen as an extension to their own lab. A postdoc to hire with specialist skills!
What are the biggest challenges of running a facility?
I think the biggest stress of any facility is always finding ways to replace the equipment as it comes up to the end of its lifetime. And if you’ve got 15-20 instruments, there’s probably a couple of instruments every year you have to be worrying about. The budgets can be a stress, too. We’re very fortunate that they are quite robust at York, but it’s still a worry.
Another big challenge is when a user wants us to do more for their available funds. Saying no to a user is really hard. We do not often have to do this, as we try and find a way, but sometimes a request is simply not possible.
Talking about new systems, it feels like new technologies can generate large amounts of data. This could be another problem for the imaging facilities or the end users. How do you deal with data storage?
This is a campus-wide problem. You hear quite often microscopists saying we generate loads of data, but you hear the same argument for mass spectrometry, genomics and structural biology. None of us are unique, so to try and solve these problems in isolation is very inefficient. York, again, is very good, and it solved the problem with a central solution. They put in a large data archiving and storage platform and computing cluster, and we all feed into that. This also means we don’t have to have any expertise in data archiving or anything else. That’s what IT support is there for, and I do think that is the right approach. We can then concentrate on the research needs of our users.
How do you deal with acknowledgments and authorships?
Our users are pretty good at acknowledging and co-authoring. Again, York is a utopia! (laughs) There are two parts to this answer. The first is making sure that the supervisor is aware of what we [in the facility] have done, not just the PhD student or postdoc that comes to the facility. A PhD student or postdoc will not always talk about the great work we’ve done, but when there’s a problem, the microscope didn’t work, or we didn’t manage to do this or that, it will always come back to us. Communication is really important. The second part, and I think this is a little bit of criticism of the core staff, is that they can make things look easy. They can invent solutions, find new applications, new methodologies, develop and deliver them to the end user. But to the end user, it just looks like a routine off-the-shelf solution. We need to communicate what’s going on in the background. We do a lot of messaging at York. When anyone new comes in, we sell ourselves as an extension to their lab – we are postdocs to hire and to build into their projects. They don’t see us just as a service, so then authorships are easier. The carrot is that we will also spread the news when they publish. I think we have a responsibility to promote the outputs of our facilities. We also have a wall in the facility that keeps getting updated with the front page of manuscripts that our users publish.
How did COVID affect the functioning of the facility?
Actually, when COVID struck my own job got busier. It’s been the busiest year ever. The first thing was to work out how to close down the lab safely. It didn’t shut down completely because there was a bit of COVID and other essential research that could not stop overnight, and the instruments can’t be shut down for three months without repercussions. Before we knew it, we were back up again after three or so months, and although the department was only at 25% capacity, most of the microscopes are in a room to themselves, so the facility was pretty much 100% capacity as soon as we opened. It was crazy busy, and it hasn’t eased off since June last year.
We also had the opportunity to help with the response to COVID. In my capacity as Director of the technology facilities, I helped support from a management side, the placement of the PCR machine from our genomics lab into the local hospital for COVID testing of patients and NHS staff. We were the first university to engage with a local hospital across the country. We then set up another COVID testing lab, which was actually based at the university for testing frontline NHS workers. The staff that stepped up and helped were terrific and made a complicated set-up deliver in quick time. From my side, I was very much behind the scenes, that I doubt many realise the complications from the legal aspects, contractual, human resource side that I was co-ordinating. This was hugely stressful at times as it was out of my usually expertise. These efforts were taking up long periods of time, on top of the day job.
Actually, COVID also created opportunities to start online forums. We had a lot more online meetings and virtual conferences. For example, alongside some brilliant co-organisers, we set up the virtual forums for establishing safe ways to operate a light microscopy, and flow cytometry labs, and helped with the electron microscopy parallel meeting. We also organised online versions of the light microscopy facilities and the flow cytometry facilities meeting, as well as ELMI2021. A couple of our courses with the RMS also turned online too. They were not as complete, but it was a stopgap that enabled people to get the training they were wanting. I think we adapted and developed solutions very quickly. I remember just before lockdown we went and bought paint for the garage doors, and some other things for inside the house, but I didn’t get any time to do those nice little jobs. (laughs)
You mentioned ELMI2021 being an online meeting this year, as well as the facility managers meeting. How did they go? Do you think that it should go back to in-person or maybe a hybrid meeting?
We are looking at hybrid for this coming January, but I do not feel that this will be sustainable in the longer term. I fear that the virtual experience would be poorer because the interactions won’t be the same. The coffee and dinner chats will be missing for those attending from home, which is where so much more is learnt and shared.
I do think the virtual meetings worked exceptionally well as a stopgap. The feedback was very positive. The best bit about the facility meetings was making them global because the UK has done this very well in person, and they have gone on to be really successful and influential. Other countries don’t necessarily have that. So by inviting international researchers I’m hoping that they will then spin off their own facilities meeting, either physical or virtual, using us as a blueprint and then adopt this to their own needs.
As for ELMI and other scientific meetings, it’s okay short term. If you went to Gathertown [the virtual meeting platform used at ELMI2021] after the talks, you could meet people you know. I don’t think meeting people virtually is anywhere near as easy if you don’t already know them. And you have to remember that the new PhDs, postdocs and facility heads that are coming to these meetings don’t have that network. It’s really hard to develop it in the virtual world. I strongly believe that we need to have those physical meetings where people can just sit at a table and meet new people. It gives you the opportunity to create networks and the ability to build up a group of support friends in your community.
To finish this interview, two questions regarding imaging technologies. First, what’s your favourite microscopy technique?
FRAP (fluorescence recovery after photobleaching). I absolutely love FRAP. The dynamics, the interaction… you’re watching and studying the change of equilibrium. Oh, yes, I love that. (smiles)
And second, what do you think will be the next big thing in imaging?
I don’t know if it’s the next big thing, but what we need to move towards is vastly improved computer-aided analysis. I would love the computer algorithms to tell me which cell is about to die before it does. To see what is fundamentally different about one cell compared to a neighbouring cell and how that matches against its history/encounters etc. It’s not just machine learning, it’s the combination of live imaging with the genomics. I think that would be massive. That’s what I’d like to see being developed: single-cell imaging to single-cell genomics in near real time. Also, the automatic ability to identify sub types of cells that we may miss, the ability to pull out responding verses non responding cells and why they are different, the ability to take a tissue section and a biopsy analysis be automated. All this is now possible, but so much ground work is needed, as well as acceptance within the various fields.