CONNECTING THE MEXICAN BIOIMAGING COMMUNITY
Adan Guerrero is an Associate Professor at the National Laboratory for Advanced Microscopy within the Biotechnology Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He is an awardee of multiple CZI grants, including one for the development of open nanoscopy methods, and one for the development of Mexican Bioimaging Workshops. Adan has a strong and versatile career with multi-pronged interests spanning microscopy, mathematics, outreach, community-building, and recently, public policy. Adan was recently elected as vice president of the Morelos Academy of Sciences, where he hopes to continue promoting changes for our community and society in general.
What was the inspiration for your project? I imagine it started before you even applied to the CZI.
After 4 years in the CZI community, I am currently part of 4 CZI projects. One inspiration to get into the CZI world is the message they want to send to humanity: they want to make a change. They do not know if they will achieve it, but it is a grand goal, to cure, prevent or manage all the diseases by the end of the century. I really like their way of thinking because they are trying to do something that is not achievable in the immediate term nor in the midterm. They are focusing on something very long down the line that will change humanity. This moved me because investing in the wellness of people is something very significant to me. What drew me to CZI is their philosophy. I had the opportunity to participate in a call titled- Expanding Global Access to Bioimaging (EGAB). This call was particularly special due to its focus on countries, people and societies that are not well-developed in terms of bioimaging. It was a call focused on addressing bioimaging challenges in Latin America, in Eastern Europe and in Africa. When we saw the call we thought of it as a sign for all of us. I was part of two out of the 11 projects that were funded in Latin America. One is “Connecting the Mexican Bioimaging Community”, with Diego Delgado and Christopher Wood, and the other is “Fluorescence Nanoscopy in Bioimaging”, with Mariano Buffone. Being successful in two CZI grants was a significant achievement for me, and it was unexpected. We endeavored to bring to the table something we had been advocating for several years prior, which is the development of the Bioimaging Community in Mexico through education and high-quality science. We are trying to effect change in our academic and social sphere, and we shared this vision with CZI. We communicated our approach to changing our world, and they appreciated it.
Were you planning on doing these things before CZI or is CZI the reason why you got this project going?
We hoped to get these things going, regardless of whether we received funding or not. However, there is a distinction between hoping for something and actually accomplishing it. The presence of CZI made it possible. We do not know if we would have been able to achieve it without CZI, but we were considering giving it a try, nonetheless. This idea of bringing communities together in Mexico started before I joined the lab. I am part of the National Laboratory for Advanced Microscopy (LNMA) in Mexico, one of the country’s first and largest microscopy facilities, offering open access to everyone: academics, students, government personnel, artists, and the general society. We have been collaborating with experts in various fields who use bioimaging to create new knowledge about nature’s hidden secrets through microscopy. The LNMA project began at the Instituto de Biotecnología of UNAM. We then played a key role in the development of another LNMA lab at Centro Médico Nacional Siglo XXI, under the leadership of Vadim Perez. Additionally, at the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada, Baja California, a government institution, we worked in collaboration with Rosa Mouriño and Diego Delgado to establish an LNMA lab, which evolved from an already existing in-house microscopy facility. This philosophy was not initiated by me but by Alberto Darszon and Christopher Wood, who were the founders of LNMA. When we joined the Conacyt National Laboratories (LNC) project, people questioned whether it was wise to invest in shared technology across the country. The LNC are inter-institutional infrastructures distributed throughout the Mexican territory, aiming to enhance scientific, technological, and innovation capacities. Being public utility entities, they operate non-profitably and are dedicated to social welfare. When I began my work at LNMA, my perspective was similar to many others, primarily focused on research and infrastructure. I thought about the need for LNCs, microscopes, and buildings. However, we soon realized that building a community was also essential. A community requires not only funds but also education. Then, the idea became very clear. Chris Wood, Diego Delgado, and I collaborated to devise the structure of the Mexican Bioimaging Workshops. The process was straightforward: we emailed all the imaging scientists we knew at imaging facilities across the country, and asked them who would like to join this project. We received prompt responses from many individuals eager to participate. Maybe this larger project was about to happen and CZI acted as the trigger. That is my feeling. We are deeply committed to supporting each other. During the application process for the EGAB call of the CZI project for the Mexican Bioimaging workshops, we deliberated over the selection of the Principal Investigator. We quickly concluded that Diego should assume this role. As a young and emerging imaging scientist, his leadership aligns with our mission to foster community and capacity-building by empowering individuals. Diego is now the leader of this project, a role that is gaining recognition. The project is not about LNMA, it is about building and nurturing the bioimaging community in Mexico, and it is tailored like that. Designed to facilitate networking and collaboration, it may appear straightforward. However, we face considerable challenges, particularly at administrative levels and due to the varying career stages of participants. Despite these obstacles, such collaborative efforts lead to the formation of strong bonds. I know that this is happening, and we are immensely pleased with its progression.
The other project I am involved in has a wider scope: it involves the Mean Shift Super-Resolution Microscopy (MSSR) approach, a mathematical principle with which we were very fortunate to invent. We made a pivotal discovery that enables super-resolution imaging with any instrument and technology, even in the single imaging regime. By 2021, we were already aware of its capabilities. However, creating technology is one aspect; making it impactful for the people around us, particularly in the scientific community, is another. In this regard, CZI has played a pivotal role. Not only does the project support the development of MSSR, but it also facilitates making MSSR accessible to everyone through education. What we are doing now is developing educational programs and conducting workshops about MSSR. Mariano Buffone and I recently led a hands-on workshop on super-resolution microscopy in Mexico, and we are planning another in Argentina soon. The idea is to bring people together to learn the state-of-the-art of super-resolution microscopy in the world, and what is available close to everyone – in this case, something like MSSR, open centers, and local experts. We have established an exchange program between Argentina and Mexico, facilitating people from both countries to go back and forth to develop and learn about these tools, and more importantly, using them to perform scientific discovery.Additionally, we are about to launch a new program, akin to the one in Janelia, centered on access infrastructure. We will shortly announce a call inviting scientists to come and test instruments at the LNMA and in Mariano’s lab. We aim to provide support fortravel expenses, accommodation, and instrument usage costs. Right now, I am at the Instituto de Ciencias Fotónicas, in Barcelona, conducting ground truth experiments to validate the reliability of MSSR in 3D, funded by the Laserlab Europe program. This underscores the significance of funding, and we are continually drawing inspiration from our global peers and trying to introduce these advances to Latin America.
You have done a little bit of all: you have increased the technology, you have increased the community, you have increased outreach. What were your biggest challenges and your biggest accomplishments so far?
One of the biggest challenges is to actually realize that you can do it. In Latin America, the dominant mindset I have encountered is that if something comes from abroad, like technology created in Europe or the USA, it must be better than anything that originated inMexico. I grew up with this way of thinking, which we refer to as ‘the mind of the conquered’. This perspective is prevalent in Latin America: we often undervalue technological assets created locally, in our case, super-resolution microscopy technology. We are committed to change this mindset, by creating technology whose impact is recognized in the global scientific community. Therefore, the initial challenge lies in self-belief – that is why we endeavored to get our paper published in Nature Communications. Some scientists in my community are reluctant to submit papers to high-impact journals, deterred by a perceived, perhaps unfounded, bias that these journals are thought to have against authors from non-European and non-USA backgrounds. My mindset, on the other hand, is to embrace the challenge, to give it a try. To do our utmost, to put things together, and to give our best shot.
Esley Torres, the lead author of the paper, is Cuban. He faced both the opportunity and the challenge of pursuing a PhD abroad, at the Morelos State Autonomous University (UAEM) in Mexico. Though I am not a faculty member at UAEM but a professor at UNAM, I have a colleague at UAEM with a degree in science. My collaboration with Manuel Rendón from UAEM’s computer sciences department facilitated our co-supervision of Esley’s thesis. Esley joined our research group at the LNMA, aiming to apply the mathematics skills he had acquired in Cuba to microscopy and bioimaging. I encourage him to apply these skills to super-resolution microscopy, which led to the development of the MSSR mathematical principle – a venture that proved to be highly successful.
One aspect of CZI that I value is their support for all the grantees with numerous workshops that focus on what are commonly referred to as ‘soft skills,’ but I prefer to call them ‘power skills.’ They are really helping us to develop other aspects that I had never been taught before: skills in pitching, presenting, organizing hybrid events, speaking during virtual interviews. We all greatly appreciate these training sessions! These skills are so important for a lot of the grantees. They not only empower us but also are changing the way we interact with our communities and our own teams. In 2023, we had the honor of hosting and organizing a major bioimaging conference in the Americas, ‘LABIxBINA: Bioimaging Across America.’ Latin America Bioimaging (LABI) and Bioimaging North America (BINA), as collaborative network organizations, are committed to enhancing and expanding bioimaging capabilities throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. Their mission is to foster coordination and integration within the global bioimaging community. Our collaborative work is centered on building a strong community, fostering the career development of imaging scientists, and broadening access to essential imaging resources, encompassing both technology and training. During the LABIxBINA conference, our support team consisted of volunteers from LNMA, who worked closely with me. They were delighted to participate and had the opportunity to interact with attendees, inquiring about career paths. This was particularly gratifying as it offered them diverse perspectives and broadened their horizons. In essence, the key is to believe in oneself. We also recognize the significance of marketing and the creation of symbolic representations. For instance, the symbol of the LABIxBINA was an axolotl, a type of endemic salamander of Mexico, notable for its unique trait of retaining its larval features through its adult life. Moreover, the symbol for MSSR is a Mexican hat!, inspired by its mathematical shape. Recently, I have been interviewed about the ‘Mexican hat’ superresolution algorithm, akin MSSR, by various local and national journals, including academic publications and, more recently, editorials focusing on politics. It might seem unusual for a political journal to feature me, but the Mexican hat’s significance as a symbol of my culture has piqued their interest. The curiosity about science often parallels an interest in cultural symbols, and I am pleased that the Mexican hat has sparked interest in super-resolution microscopy among people in my community. I was recently honored with an invitation to join the National Academy of Science in Morelos state, a highly prestigious recognition. Subsequently, I was elected as the vice-president of the Academy. This position affords me a unique opportunity to directly influence local academic-related politics, which is a life-changing prospect! Remarkably, these developments are intricately linked with symbols of high-quality scientific achievements, such as the Mexican hat. This association fills me with immense pride, as it underscores the recognition and value of our scientific contributions.
How has participation in CZI helped you foster networking with other applicants in the region and in the rest of the world?
CZI’s involvement has been a significant catalyst in fostering networking and collaboration. Building trust is essential for starting a collaboration, and spending time with others, sharing the same space and time anywhere in the world, allows you to understand their likes, dislikes, and interests. My first exposure to the global bioimaging community was at the beginning of LABI, which originatedfrom a joint effort between Chris Wood at LNMA and the labs of Andres Kamaid and Leonel Malacrida. Initiated as a project supported by both the Uruguayan and Mexican embassies. One of the aims of the project (and the funding they received) was to organize a few scientific workshops, and a train-the-trainer workshop in Uruguay. I was invited to help in the organization of these workshops in Uruguay, and this allowed me to network with the team over there. The workshop was on super-resolution microscopy, which is a topic I am very passionate about. At that time, Uruguay had no significant development in super-resolution microscopy, opening avenues for strengthening collaborations due to the local interest in learning about this technology. We have since been collaboratively writing proposals and exchanging students. These initiatives were already underway even before LABI was formally established. Later, Andres and Leonel visited Mexico to conduct a workshop on hyperspectral and fluorescence lifetime imaging, which attracted considerable interest within our local bioimaging community. Working alongside Christopher Wood as the local coordinator, I had the opportunity for more close interactions with Andres and Leonel. Their influence was instrumental in my involvement with several international communities. It was Andres who encouraged me to apply to the CZI-funded fellowship offered to attend the GBI meeting. Being one of the TOP 7 CZI travel grantees not only not only broadened my network but also allowed me to meet you too (Mariana) in Uruguay. Our collaboration now is a direct result of these interconnected events and opportunities. These are examples – I can keep going on and on with how the connections with different people have formed, including many people whom you have interviewed in your FocalPlane series (to Latin American scientists). I love the idea of collaborating, and this network is fantastic for me. The upcoming LABI meeting, scheduled for 2024 in Brazil, involves me as a key member of the organizing committee, working in collaboration with Kildare Miranda. Our joint efforts are directed not only towards enhancing the global bioimaging ecosystem but also towards making significant scientific advancements, such as applying MSSR to electron microscopy. This collaborative venture allows me to gain invaluable knowledge from Kildare in various aspects, including science and politics. His approach inspires me to implement similar initiatives in Mexico. One aspect I deeply value about all the individuals I have mentioned, as well as the bioimaging community as a whole, is the pervasive spirit of cooperation over competition. Everyone is committed to supporting each other, which is truly exceptional.
The word networking had a negative connotation for earlier generations of scientists– there was nothing collaborative about it, but rather something ‘back-door’ and not done in the open. I feel this concept itself hindered collaboration in science, whereas now this is so positive. I love the fact it’s changing. How do you feel about it?
Yes, I truly embrace this concept. At the Biotechnology Institute of UNAM, I am grateful for the tremendous support provided by key figures: Director Laura Palomares, Academic Secretary Alfredo Martinez, and Brenda Valderrama from the Liaison Office. These individuals, who hold critical decision-making positions, genuinely understand and value the networking activities we engage in. One shared concern by several CZI grantees is the scenario we will face once CZI funding concludes. I think CZI is doing things very well. They have encouraged grantees to develop more robust ‘power skills’ in leadership, focusing on how to cultivate sustainable funding. Discussions about sustainability, particularly about funding, are ongoing through several forums, and we are actively exploring ways to achieve this. We understand that relying solely on CZI is not the sole avenue for progress. Forming collaborations with non-profit entities like the Wellcome Trust and Invest in Open Infrastructure, as well as partnerships with various microscopy vendors, offers promising alternatives. The essence of these collaborations should be rooted in mutual benefit: while these organizations seek to expand their market presence, our aim is to gain access to high-quality, advanced microscopes. However, to ensure sustainable funding, it is essential that we develop an appealing bioimaging ecosystem. This was evident at the LABIxBINA meeting, where the involvement of industry partners was significant. Their role in engaging with and contributing to the growth of the community was a key aspect of the event. The participation of government entities is equally vital at the local and at the national level, which influenced my decision to join the National Academy of Sciences of Morelos state. In this role, I am eager to somehow contribute to the generation of funding for science and technology. This begins with effectively communicating the value of scientific discovery to the general population, an endeavor that aligns with my long-held aspirations. As a student, I held the belief that lobbying was a realm reserved solely for politicians, not scientists. However, my perspective has since evolved. I now hold the conviction that I can be a catalyst for positive change in my country. This aligns with the principle I mentioned earlier: the importance of believing in oneself. Having that belief is the first step, followed by the willingness to put in effort and attempt new challenges.
What do you think about democratizing microscopy, and what is the future of microscopy and of your project in this sense? What are our blind spots as a community?
Our understanding of our bioimaging community is still in the early stages; we are just beginning to truly connect with it. My feeling at the beginning of LABI was the concern that the initiative might become insular, confined to the immediate circle of the participants. When I was going to the different meetings, I was often seeing the same faces, and this led me to question myself whether we were really making a change, or just supporting each other in our small bubble. Were we indeed fostering widespread change, or simply reinforcing connections within our own limited network? Then it became imperative for me to extend the reach of our community. Something strong in my mind is that I need to bring more people into these initiatives. I want others to be part of this community and I want them to feel what I feel – that it is making a positive impact in my life and in my community. For example, I have noticed a lack of participation from regions such as Puerto Rico, Panama, and many other Latin American countries, which is a situation that needs to be addressed. Furthermore, the field of bioimaging should extend beyond the confines of the microscopy bioimaging community. This is something I tried to bring to the LABIxBINA meeting. I sought to share intertwined aspects of Mexican ecology and culture, specifically through a macro photographic exhibition showcasing local Mexican insects. This endeavor aimed to highlight the rich biodiversity of Mexico and its cultural significance. I met Armando Burgos and Oscar Burgos at the Mexican Bioimaging Workshop V, and realized they are also doing bioimaging: Their work at the Center for Biological Research of UAEM involves capturing macroscopic images of living systems such as insects with a focus on conveying a conservation message to society. I introduced this element in response to a request from our BINA colleagues to incorporate aspects of Mexican heritage into the meeting. The Burgos team conducts part of their research in the jungle and engages with indigenous communities, bringing a unique perspective that intertwines science with cultural and environmental awareness.
They showed me a video they had produced about life in the Naha indigenous community in Mexico, which shared various aspects of their daily life, including food, marriage customs, and other facets of their cultural heritage. I was instantaneously convinced about the value of incorporating some of these elements into the LABIxBINA meeting. In essence, my goal is to engage as much as possible, all communities and countries in the region. Some are not yet involved due to local constraints, while others face international barriers, as seen with Cuba. My connection to Cuba is strong, particularly in the academic sphere, as I have mentored three Cuban PhD students in mathematics, including Esley. It is important to recognize the valuable contributions that individuals from different countries can make when seeking opportunities to work and study in another country. In the case of MSSR, the participation of Esley played a significant role in the development of the mathematical principles behind the technology. This highlights the potential for innovation and progress that can result from such international interactions and collaborations. Esley invented the MSSR principle, and I helped to refine it to apply it to microscopy. This is just one example, but we should create more of these opportunities. If I have the chance to support Cuba, I will continue to do so. From my experience with my students, I have realized that it is not easy for them to study abroad – they are very vulnerable because there are so many regulations that complicate things significantly. Visas pose a significant barrier to science, and it affects some countries more than others. When I have traveled with my students, I usually go through immigration in different countries without too many questions being asked, whereas my Cuban students are subjected to numerous questions everywhere we go. This situation must change for the greater good of global science.
Check out our introductory post, with links to the other interviews here