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Enhancing Global Access: interview with CZI grantee Kerry Thompson

Posted by , on 24 January 2024


Kerry Thompson is an Anatomist and Microscopist in the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at the University of Galway in Ireland. Through her project, she aims to establish a National Center for training in microscopy, imaging and related technologies. She is working towards generating momentum, resources and content to promote and develop microscopists and their skills within Irish higher education institutes. Her work is highlighting the importance of imaging scientists within the research ecosystem, and the need for establishing recognized and independent career pathways for imaging scientists. 

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

I had worked as a core Imaging Scientist for a number of years. Around 2010 I was recruited to develop a core facility in our University by my PhD supervisor, Prof Peter Dockery. Our aim was to expand access across our campus, making the technologies available to everyone. My initial contract was as a Staff Scientist and this was really quite ahead of its time. Another colleague of mine, Dr Peter Owens, and I were working together in this role and our prior experience covered the fields of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. I worked as this postdoc/core facility/staff Scientist for about 5-6 years, and towards the end of the grant we had been employed under, the University pushed to convert our posts onto the Technical Track. It was suggested this was to ensure sustainability of the posts, because very few academic ones were exclusively affiliated with the broad development of technologies. I was fortunate that around that time the opportunity to apply for an academic post became available, where the aim was to develop a Masters Degree in microscopy and imaging. I felt that this was the best route for me to continue to have the freedom to pursue research  in the technology and method development space and continue to cultivate my interest in developing training and education. I applied and was awarded a fixed term position. I developed and ran the Masters degree until 2020 and contributed to the teaching mission of the College of Medicine – my last cohort of MSc students was the year of the COVID pandemic. When the second CZI RFA came about, again in 2020, I was pregnant with my second child, and two weeks away from going on maternity leave. The idea for the project came from recognising the constant need and requests for education and training we were receiving in the facility, and also to try and seize the opportunity available as my academic contract was coming to an end. The experience I had gained through the development of  our own MSc course was key, and through my roles within the Microscopy Society of Ireland (MSI) and the Royal Microscopical Society (RMS) for the broader career development components. I wrote the funding application with the premise of developing that programme. In October of that year, during my maternity leave, I found out our application had been successful and I was over the moon. The funded CZI projects  have really been strengthening the community as a whole, and my goal is to be able advocate for the need of these training packages across the imaging community, and offer them beyond my own institution nationally.   

What led you to realize the need for a structured program of training? You are also Chair of Outreach and Education at RMS – how did these different aspects come together?

On any given week we would field numerous requests within the core for introductory training in light and electron microscopy techniques and assistance with projects. They could come in from Investigators working in anything from Pathology to Botany to Physics or Engineering, and for both them or their students. I realised that perhaps the MSc approach was not best suited to delivering this type of content, as many of the requests were from those who had already begun a PhD and recognised the need and appilcations for microscopy in their project. This is the same in every core or platform, but here I have aimed to have packages that we can roll out in collaboration with our national and international colleagues who are facing the same challenges in their own cores. During my own PhD I was fortunate to benefit from this type of multidisciplinary training and understood its worth. Half-way through my postdoc in  expanding the core, I got a bit restless and felt I needed a fresh challenge. I reached out to RMS – which I had been a member of for years, when I noticed that the Outreach and Education committee offered free microscopy kits for school children within the UK. I wanted to bring the scheme to Ireland, so I wondered if the committee would be interested in allowing us to help participate in and share the program as an affiliate society with the MSI. After some initial positive feedback from my RMS predecessor, Prof. Susan Anderson, and along with my collaegue Dr Alanna Stanley, I wrote a small funding application to work with some of our final year BSc student volunteers to pilot the scheme in rural primary schools within County Galway, where we’re from. Based on the success of this, we then built to a national level. The pilot scheme was a great success and the small funding really helped us to demonstrate its potential impact. Following this, I was elected as Chair of the Committee and Honorary Secretary for Education in 2018 – we serve 9 years, so I am more than half-way through my term, but that role in itself has opened up so many doors for me. It has helped me to develop a greater awareness of the global community and why this type of scheme and community engagement are so important when advocating for our roles as Imaging Scientists to the lay public and also to other Reserachers. 

How did you first hear about the CZI program, and what do you find is unique to this program?I first found out about CZI when I was setting up the MSc course. I was talking to our students about career development and about life in a core – what I had done essentially and our roles and responsibilities. I don’t know if it was through social media, but somehow I remember seeing the funding call for the first cycle for Imaging Scientists and thinking ‘That is exactly what I would like to apply for. It is 100% what I need to escalate the importance of microscopy and imaging education both, within our home institution and nationally in Ireland’. When the 2020 RFA launched, I nearly missed it as I was just about to go on maternity leave. At this time, some of my colleagues and I were struggling with short term contracts, we were in the depths of a global pandemic and I was once again being asked to change track to a technical role. I really wasn’t sure that this was right for me, so when I saw the funding call I jumped at the chance to apply and could recognize its value and opportunities this type of experience would generate. I contacted Dr Jennifer Waters just prior to applying and asked her if she had any suggestions or advice. She said ‘just go for it. It’s reviewed by a community that understands its need’. The understanding of the importance of staff who work in this frontier space is often not communicated by other funding bodies that I see here in Ireland, or even internationally. CZI appears to really value the intricacies of role we hold – it’s not an academic role, nor a technical role, nor an administrative role, but rather a hybrid of all of the above. Moreover, they understand the inherent importance of the community and its team science mentality. Having open access to often expensive or high end technologies available for researchers and scientist to use is key to this field, and to have the people who drive this dissemination and  democratization recognized appropriately is a huge step forwards.

Has it been easier to find some synergy between CZI and RMS and the Microscopy Society of Ireland to ensure long term support?Absolutely. The aim of the Microscopy Society of Ireland and the RMS has always been to promote and advance microscopy within our localities, but their reach tends to be limited to members who are already aware of those societies. The RMS has a broader global reach but we still work on expanding this membership yearly. I think that the impact that CZI is having in this space is phenomenal. They have provided global opportunties for networking and bringing together international colleagues, which you simply wouldn’t really have had access to at such a scale prior to Covid.  The year after getting the grant, I found out I was pregnant with my 3rd baby.  I was worried about how this would be perceived by CZI, since I had really just started. On a regular day it can be challenging to deal with academic life, and being a woman in Science and having small kids and and being a mom is sometimes a lot. Thankfully,  the programme team were incredibly supportive. Also around that time, I wrote an infrastructure grant to develop multimodal and correlative workflows. Though my CZI network I was able to include support letters from other grantees to the proposal who agreed to share knowledge and experience with sample preparation and method development. I was very fortunate to get this funding from Science Foundation Ireland – where I was awarded €3.6 million for a super-resolution system, a multiphoton system and volume EM (todevelop serial block-face and array tomography methodologies). I think having CZI funding was probably key for for securing that type of scale of investment, specifically in this field. A direct impact of their funding of the imaging space is the expansion of these functional global networks.. It’s much easier to communicate with colleagues or have an awareness of someone who can perhaps help or give advice or collaborate with. Before, we had a greater  need to travel and meet in person, which is prohibitive for many people, for a wide variety of reasons including having a young family. I think that has now changed – there are more opportunities to collaborate remotely and it’s wonderful that we can communicate more freely with each other globally due to these networks. CZI has really fostered this sense of community. The MSI and the RMS see now how globally we can achieve this level of cooperation and I think can work to emulate that more locally.  Whilst trying to communicate the importance of microscopy and imaging within the research ecosystem more broadly, the platform that the CZI funding has given me has been really helpful and beneficial.

Your project is multi-pronged, involving the postdoctoral program, and outreach aimed at children. What challenges have you faced during your project? 

COVID has been a big challenge. It was difficult to run in-person trainings initially, so we had to plan a lot of our teaching to be virtual. This was fine for some of the theoretical content, but for really applied, hands-on training, it was difficult. It also stopped community meetings and there were no in person conferences for quite some time. We had to relearn how to network online and the in-person conversations that you would otherwise have had over a coffee during a conference, now had to happen over a screen. This took a while to adapt to. The other big challenge for me is dealing with academic life while being a mom to small kids. The good thing was that as more meetings became available online, virtual participation became possible. This has gone backwards again in the past year I would say which is a shame. There is a definite need for in person events but I think hybrid programms promote inclusivity and broader attendance. I’ve had to say ‘no’ to many in-person meetings recently which is profesionally very difficult, perhaps because it was too far away, or too long for me to be away from my kids whilst they are still so young. Obviously travel etc is a personal decisison, but these decisions can be diffcult to square with your prechild academic self. Figuring out how to deal with those challenges can be tricky when both parents now work fulltime in a household. At the same time, it’s a fiercely competitive space we work in, and to get the grants and the funding, you have to be willing to put in the long hours and the long days when it’s called for. Another challenge I have struggled with is the inbuilt bureaucracy in academia we all face when trying to get things done. It slows everything down by a factor or 10  Balancing the various ascpects of the funding, be it the development of the more global career path advocacy with the academic year and running courses, can be challenging. Each require you to committ 100% attention 100% of the time so must portioning your time effectively and strategically.  The outreach I’ve been a part of has always been broadly working with very young kids to public outreach programs for the University. Recently we had to pleasure of  hosting an artist for an event in our facility where we worked with a group of second level students. We discussed the various types and applications of microscopy and imaging in different careers and its close relationship with art. It was very rewarding to see some of them thrive on this mix of science and creativity.  Another big challenge or difficulty I’m having is in relaying the importance of the Imaging and Microscopy community to our national institutions and funders. I have been working on developing the understanding that we don’t only need to invest in things and equipment, but in people in these roles. Globally, CZI are probably one of the few programs investing in community. Academia is still quite traditional in how it divides up roles and job families. Many technical staff don’t get acknowledged appropriately for their contributions either in publications or via KPIs and this can be challenging. I do think things are changing slowly and for the better and we are moving forwards. I hope to leverage the messaging from a recent output from the Global Bioimaging Career Paths for Imaging Scientists working group that I co-chair along with Dr Graham Wright in Singapore to help better inform international best practice. The imaging field is frontier science, and the fact that we are getting funded and supported is fundamental to conveying to our fellow colleagues that our skill are valuable and necessary for modern collaborative research.

How do you define democratizing microscopy and what are future directions that you might want to explore?

I think being able to offer the technologies that we have in core facilities and platforms in an open access manner is where we can make a start. This requires restructuring on how governments, funders and universities think and operate, and obviously there are cost implications in place for staffing, equipment, and equipment maintenance which must be considered. We need to support the people behind these technologies and ensure recognition of this as a vaild field of Science and research in its own right. We need to support those who are invested in and engaged with their work, to allow them to convey their enthuaism, knowledge and skills to enable support of these open access facilities and training events. The global networks that comprise Global Bioimaging for example are making great strides in ensuring this is happening. In order to create a level-playing field across the board, in all continents where these technologies are in place, we need to give the opportunities to people where they are needed most. We need to better support early career colleagues through mentoring and job shadowing schemes. Levelling the playing field with accessible training and education is essential. Ensuring scientists can avail of well supported professional development is very important. In this way, the generations coming behind us will have opportunites that perhaps were not avilable ten years ago and may lead to the development of more clearly defined and supported careers. Promoting open science be it either open software or harware is also very important to me. The enabling capacity of some of the systems that can be build from 3D printed or recycled components is mind boggling. We ran an event in the RMS Learning Zone at MMC 23 which focused on open source software and analysis training, and open source hardware and building and they were some of the best attended and most fun. I would like to be able to support more of these types of creative and productive gatherings. 

The CZI grantee community is a huge community with common goals. Is this something that has been helpful to you? 

It has been incredibly helpful – I think that’s apparent from what we’ve discussed. The freedom to pursue these topics academically and grow our own national awarness for Imaging Scientists through invited talks or meet ups and gatherings has been wonderful. Things take time to change and you have to be hopeful that your contributions help to shape the future. Many grantees have programmes with shared interests and its wonderful to have more senior or experienced people to contact for advice or reassurance or collaboration. It helps avoid reduplication of efforts and really fosters the sense of being part of something much bigger than just you or your own project. Many are so giving of their time and are incredibly supportive. Its been great to start to connect with the grantees either virtually or in person and I generally leave the meetings feeling grateful for the opportunity I was afforded. I didn’t get to travel to the USA for the last CZI meeting because it clashed with other long standing commitments, but I would love to attend next year. I have to add Vladimir Ghukasyan I think has been instrumental in the success of the CZI community building amd Imaging programmes. He has been incredibly supportive as a programme manager and we are extremely lucky to have him as our main contact point. Im looking forward to continuing my work here in Ireland and hopefully helping to make a positive change for Imaging Scientists careers globally. 

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

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