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Enhancing Global Access: interview with CZI grantee Cristina Guatimosim

Posted by , on 24 January 2024


Cristina Guatimosim is leading the Bioimaging Network of Minas Gerais in Brazil (BioIMG Net). This is a pioneering model that aims to increase accessibility through several initiatives: acquisition of state-of-the-art instruments, capacity building, sponsoring workshops and other training opportunities, and engaging with public schools and the general public to make science available to everyone through microscopy. The team hopes that this projects serves as a model for access that can be expanded to the rest of the country.

What was the inspiration for your project? How did your idea for the CZI project arise?

Our MIC network, was created almost a decade ago – I wasn’t part of that. But it wasn’t operating in the last years. The head of the network retired, and this ended. There was always this need and will of continuing with a microscopy network in Brazil. Greg Kitten was the one who knew about the CZI call for expanding the use of microscopy in Brazi and he is a CO-PI here in BioIMG Net. He contacted me, and we started talking about the network. The motivation was to resuscitate or continue the project that was done in the past but for many reasons was over. Because of the CZI call, it has branches. We have the scientific branch of our project, we have the educational branch aimed to training. The other network, because of the type of financial support it received, it was to buy equipment, rather to develop the capacities. So it’s completely different goals. 

What are the biggest challenges you have faced during the implementation of your project?

Because of Brazilian rules, we are not as free as we would like to be to spend the money. There are so many restrictions that are not imposed by CZI at all, but once the money is nationalized, you have to follow several rules that sometimes make it hard for us to spend the money. This is a main challenge. The money is aimed at promoting workshops, training sessions and really doing what we plan to do to expand the use of microscopy. All the time we want to buy items for our workshops to build things ourselves to help with our day to day we face major challenges. Another challenge is that the educational part is fantastic, it’s amazing what we’ve been doing, but it’s a whole new world for me – I’m a bench scientist, so it’s been a steep learning curve for me. 

What have been the biggest successes?

The science part of our project. We are in the process of implementing a technique called 3D serial volume EM in the UFMG Microscopy Center. It will be the first facility to have it in Brazil. We got the money from CZI to implement it, but we didn’t get money to buy equipment. So the Microscopy Center received  funding from the Brazilian government to get the best microscope to do this, a FIB-SEM microscope. And the facility also received funds from the Brazilian government to get the equipment to slice the tissue and get the tape with all the sections that will be imaged serially. Because of my previous research in Harvard – I did a postdoc in Jeff Lichtman lab, where the technique was developed, last year, with LABI support, I went to Jeff’s lab and to receive training. I did all the steps, imaged there, and then brought the sections to be imaged here in Brazil so I could also compare if the microscope that we bought would give us the same image quality. Just this week, we had the first images, which are beautiful. A colleague from Harvard was here this week and we did this together, so we worked with him and he helped us to calibrate the instrument. Next step is to do all the imaging alignment, segmentation and reconstruct the cells I’m interested in. But I think we made a huge progress this year towards this. Another success is that last year we really focused on training, in this spirit of expanding the use of microscopy. We made an open call directly to young researchers who are PIs, that got the position in the last 5 years, and we chose people that have established research lines with very straightforward questions that could be answered with one or two microscopy techniques. We are in a process of helping them to achieve this. One example: we have selected a PI  that study giant viruses that live in water. His PhD advisor’s group identified giant viruses that are very unique but he himself doesn’t know how to do EM. We are supporting his project by training one of his PhD students are at the UFMG Microscopy Center, on the preparation of biological samples, which are crucial for EM and on the instrument usage. We chose people with very straightforward questions. We guide people through the microscopy world, and we want them to be new users. In addition we have been offering hands- on training and this year We focused more on image analysis, especially after the last CZI meeting in San Francisco. I got in touch with Beth Cimini from the Broad institute – one of the minds behind CellProfiler. I told her we would benefit from getting training and she said there was a Brazilian guy who did a postdoc with her who had just returned to Brazil- there’s a person in the country who knows CellProfiler and this is fantastic. She put me in touch with this person and he came here a few weeks ago. Then we scheduled sessions with the students to identify which image analysis software would best suit their needs. We just did a survey for the course, and 100% of the students rated the experience with 10/10, and they want more. I think this was a big achievement also for this year. 

In the bigger picture of Brazilian imaging, which I know also is very strong, how do you feel your project fits in? 

Having a project like this, we are expanding the use of microscopy not only here in Belo Horizonte, but in other places in our state which are located in regions with low economy index, so I think this is a pilot for the country. If we succeed here, I feel that our model can be expanded to the rest of the country. 

What is the value for you of strengthening microscopy networks?

Microscopy is so valuable for so many fields of interest. It’s so broad that if you invest in it, you can benefit so many other areas. We have our education program called Microscopy: a world that reveals itself. We use microscopy to stimulate kids from public schools that do not know what career to pursue, or they have to work because they have to help their families. Our project is directed at them. We use microscopy to teach physics and biology to them. When we first ran the course, one kid raised his hand and said ‘before being here, I thought that my biggest goal in life was to be a cashier in the supermarket close to home. Now I’m dreaming about astrophysics.’ So, people start to dream and realize they can accomplish something bigger. It brought tears to everyone in the room. We never thought about it. Here in Brazil, places like the UFMG are like some castle in the top of the hill: unachievable. They even don’t know that it’s a public university. Some ask me if it’s expensive to study here and I tell them it’s for free. 

Access begins with raising awareness about the opportunities that exist. On this topic, did you know about the CZI program before the call, or how did you get to know about it?

I was getting ready to take a position as a full professor in June 2021. It was challenging because I have a small daughter, and my husband was abroad. Around this time, I got a call from Greg about the CZI foundation, and this call. I went to the website and thought ‘This is very nice. I want to be part of this’. We prepared the grant, but you know how you send a grant and you think ‘they must receive thousands of applications, mine will likely not succeed. And then one day I got an email saying ‘Congratulations’ and it blew my mind. I’m enjoying it so much! This is a whole new world. Microscopy allows us to change gears all the time because of education, training, outreach, and the 3D serial volume EM. I coordinate those 3 things and it’s been a real challenge, but one challenge I embraced and I am very happy about. 

How has the CZI program helped you beyond the money they provide? For instance through mentoring programs or the CZI meeting in San Francisco?

The first time I’ve been to a meeting with breakout sessions was the CZI meeting. It was totally new for me. This concept of being in a room at tables in groups discussing the same issue and then presenting the ideas in the end. I learned so much from this. Because you have 50+ minds thinking about the same problem, but giving different answers. Sometimes you overlap with ideas, but it was never the same answer to everything. So this is awesome. The lectures too: I had never heard about napari, CellProfiler, etc. Because CZI really invest in imaging, they recognize that image analysis is key, so I got to know more about the field of image analysis too. One thing that also impressed me: the way they organize meetings, the way they behave – they are a good role model for us. I learned from them that doing a hybrid meeting is like doing 2 meetings in one. Before them, I thought it was a piece of cake. But actually it’s not that simple. You have to have the equipment and you have to make sure that the person who is not with you in the room doesn’t feel excluded.

What do you think about democratizing microscopy and how do you feel that CZI is pursuing and facilitating this idea? 

Democratizing is giving access to people to use microscopy, so this scenario for Brazil is that especially in the South East part of the country, you have excellent microscopy facilities. In Brazil, people tend to build multi-user facilities, which is great. So giving access to people to these facilities, to me is, to democratize. But for you to give access, you have to ensure that people can pay for it, that they can be trained, that they can make the most of it. I feel CZI is doing a fantastic job in democratizing microscopy, by funding projects like mine! We are doing exactly this: expanding access. We can’t expand without being successful in our pilot project, which is in the Minas Gerais state. If we prove that we are successful, I think we can export our model to the whole country. 

I see that with your project you’ve engaged public schools, the general public, scientists, everyone. It’s a multi-faceted project. How has this experience been?

We selected students from the public schools in Belo Horizonte to receive a little fellowship and we collected water from the pond that is near the school, in which kids play and which is important for the community. We have a consultant from the ecology ecosystem research area, that helped us make  a small analysis of water quality with students from the local school and we imaged the water at the light microscope and the SEM. We’ve seen algae, microcrustaceans, mosquito larvae, pollution in the water, etc. Our goal with the kids, is to write a little report or essay and hand it to the community, so they are aware about the water and not use it for drinking or other purposes. The kids from the school will be helping their community. The images of the material they collected are beautiful! We are going to make a small exhibition with the images. Imagine high school kids presenting work of this quality. We are very proud! 

Check out our introductory post, with links to the other interviews here

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Categories: Towards Global Access, Default, Blog series

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