CONNECTING THE MEXICAN BIOIMAGING COMMUNITY
Diego Delgado is a principal investigator based in Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education (CICESE). He is the leader of the Mexican Bioimaging Workshops, and now the newly created Mexico Bioimaging network. CZI has been fundamental for their project in enabling expanding access to microscopy. For instance, through stimulating collaborations, disseminating expertise and information, and creating a platform for exchange of experience within Mexico at a whole country level.
What was the inspiration for your project? How did your idea for the CZI project arise?
It was a new idea. I was approached by Chris Wood and Adan Guerrero from the National Laboratory of Advanced Microscopy at UNAM. Chris was already part of the GBI and LABI groups, and I think he was the one who came up with the idea of doing something similar for Mexico. At the time I didn’t know a lot of imaging facilities in Mexico but Adan and Chris were already aware of other core facilities. Therefore, when we saw the call for proposals for the grants, we thought about this project, focused on Mexico. Our proposal includes an aspect of outreach. Being in a national laboratory, one of the three elements that we have to consider is human resources training, and we wanted to extend this to people that were not professionals or not involved in the field. That’s how we came up with the idea of doing an outreach program for each workshop. We wanted to create a platform in which different people working on bioimaging could coincide, share knowledge, share challenges and make a front of things in common – to create a community.
What do you think is the importance of having general community engagement for the advancement of microscopy and science in general?
I think every lab – or a lot of labs – have at least one microscope. Microscopy is a unifying theme for science and having evidence of what we do, of the effect of what we do, and what we find, is really important. In Mexico, and I guess everywhere in the world, it’s sometimes difficult to acquire new, state-of-the-art microscopes, so the core facilities or national laboratories are a really good way of making these tools available to all of the community at a cost that is not prohibitive. So, not everybody has to buy their own microscope, but they can still have access or at least secure funding to services. Building a community is really important. It’s vital to address common problems and most of the times the problems that one lab has, have already been solved by another lab so it’s just a matter of communication, and having a place to communicate, to talk about science, to exchange experience and to support each other.
The institutions you are trying to bring together: UNAM, CICESE, INECOL, CICY, INCAN, etc are very complex – how did you manage that?
That’s an ongoing challenge because all of the resources are here at CICESE, which is dependent on the CONAHCYT. Because it’s federal money given by CONAHCYT, all the administrative procedures are very rigid and very scrutinized, so it’s difficult when we work with other institutions like UNAM which is autonomous. Sometimes the way that they work, in comparison to CICESE, has much more freedom and flexibility. The way they have to spend their money is not as highly scrutinized as in CICESE so it’s really difficult when we have the workshops in institutions that work very differently to us. If the people organizing the workshop in their local institution are not aware of the way we work, this can be problematic. It’s something that can be solved and has been solved, but it needs a lot of communication, lots of meetings, and it requires us to explain our procedures very well. It’s tedious but it’s what we have to do.
How easy was it to get the community on board? And how easy was it to get all these institutions to get into a mindset that is different from purely academic questions?
It’s funny now that I think about it. We’ve had this project for 2 years. We tend to think about institutions having their own mind, but it’s people who make these decisions. On a personal level, everybody was really excited and into the project, but we found some resistance within the institutions because sometimes people make questions like ‘what do we gain from this project?’. Initially some institutions were hesitant about getting involved. At the end everyone acknowledges the value of this project. In some institutions there is some resistance of lending equipment or facilities to people from outside that institution, or being willing to have professors from other institutions accessing their institutes, using their equipment and teaching. On a personal level, everybody has been really supportive and excited. The main challenges we have faced relate to the way institutions work. We’ve been learning a lot about how to approach different institutions. I think something really cool about our workshops is that we are not super formal. When we print our programs we don’t put people’s titles, we just put the names of the professors. Even if they are MSc’s or PhDs, we put the names only. I think that the people that attend the workshops notice that we are more horizontal in ‘hierarchical structure’. I feel when we call each other by our first names, it’s easier to build a bond and trust, and this makes me feel we are part of a community.
I saw you cover a lot of territory: you are organizing 6 workshops for fundamentals of microscopy, 6 for advanced microscopy, and outreach events. The outreach events, are they aimed at specific age ranges or how do you distribute your efforts?
In principle there is no restriction, each organizer decides the public and the place where the workshop will take place. So far, they have been aimed at primary and secondary schools. One workshop we did in Mexico City was aimed at a wider range of ages because we did it in the Pabellon de la Biodiversidad. We were in the top floor and open to everyone – attendees included families, young adults, children, everyone. In Ensenada we will hold one in a public space, in the main park of Ensenada and it will be on a Saturday, which is when more families are around. I am curious to see how people from the general community perceive this- that there are microscopes available to explore things.
Does everyone in Mexico Bioimaging have a team dedicated to outreach?
No, but one advantage of the new policies of CONAHCYT is that undergraduate students are required to do outreach activities to get their degree. In the past, it was complicated to find volunteers. Now it’s much easier because you can ask your students. What we sometimes also do is we ask attendees of our workshops to become instructors for the outreach component, as part of the invitation. It can be really interesting because there are people who have never ever done science dissemination or science communication, who think that they are not good at it. But because it’s part of the activity, soon they are super enthusiastic about it and they get super involved and do it well.
In what ways has CZI made this workshop possible? What has the impact of CZI been on what you’ve been trying to do?
Without CZI we would not have been able to do these workshops. I wasn’t used to having projects this big, but for me now it’s really clear what is needed to organize a good meeting in terms of fellowships, moving people around, lodging, food, accommodations, among other aspects. For this, the experience of Adan Guerrero and Chris Wood was really important because they have been doing this for many years so when we were writing the budget, their experience was really important in giving form to the project. The amount of money we received from CZI for these type of events is simply not available here in Mexico from other funding bodies, so the impact has been enormous. I don’t even have words to describe it. It’s beyond what we expected. We have reached a lot of people that were previously not involved in microscopy. The idea of having these two types of workshops – one for fundamental and one for advanced microscopy, is to give continuity. Some people that don’t know much about microscopy. After the workshops and after getting more involved in the discipline, this experience has changed their projects or has given them ideas of how to approach their own research. Even people from undergraduate programs, they probably had some idea of what they want to do when they finish school and then decide to go into graduate school focusing on microscopy. It’s been really great.
In general, how do you define democratizing microscopy and what are the long-term future goals of your project? How do you see in Mexico Bioimaging in 10 years or so?
That’s a great question. I always think of the 10-year goals, especially when we are doing the outreach activities because I think ‘This kid that is 12 years old right now, in 10 years he/she will be 22 and finishing an undergraduate degree’. We are thinking of building a community not just with the people that are currently users of microscopy, but creating new users. The idea of democratizing access to microscopy is very similar to the philosophy of the program of the national laboratories where the idea is to have core facilities open for everyone. In a country like Mexico, where resources are limited, it’s important to have these places where people can come together and have access to the equipment and expertise. This makes their work and their research, have higher impact, and it allows all of us to do great science.
Within Mexico, we have under-represented minorities. How easy is it to reach them as well? Equally, when it comes to gender-specific programs – is this something you already do or are planning to do?
For gender equality we have been really conscious about having parity in terms of gender. Starting from the call for applications, we include the question ‘what gender do you identify with?, and we try to be neutral in our selection, and to encourage parity. In terms of ethnic groups we haven’t made this specific question. I know it’s something delicate that we have to be conscious about. I want to do it, but I think we need advice, and someone to tell us how to even make the questions, because in Mexico it’s really clear: there is privilege at many levels including gender, economic and racial. So I think it’s really important that all of our workshops are free and we give equal support for people to move around. Sometimes people write to us saying ‘I didn’t get in, but what if I pay for my travel expenses?’ We refuse, because this would be unfair to someone who cannot pay their own expenses. Everyone has the same right to attend, and for that reason, we don’t accept people willing to pay their own expenses.
You have collaborators in scientific institutions all over the country. Do you think having workshops in regions closer to under-represented minorities (for instance close to indigenous communities) would facilitate access?
That hasn’t been an option because these first workshops are designed to be held at core facilities which are already in big spaces. But at least for the outreach events, the one in Yucatan, it wasn’t in Merida – it was in a small town called Chocholaá which is closer to Campeche, and it was in a public school, so the organizers over there invited the whole community. For the one that was in Mexico City this year in UNIVERSUM, they have a listing of people from orphanages for example, and they reach out to them to tell them about these workshops. For our next workshop here in Ensenada, I was mentioning earlier that we will do it in a public park that is open for everyone. It’s an ideal place for our workshop. For the outreach part it’s easier to engage with under-privileged communities, I think.
Check out our introductory post, with links to the other interviews here