Enhancing Global Access: interview with CZI grantee Mark Scimone

Posted by , on 24 January 2024


As his project for the Cycle 1 imaging scientist call, Mark Scimone proposed a new prototype of what the standard imaging core facility could be. This includes facilitating collaborations between vendors, researchers and cores; generating structured microscopy and optics education courses which also introduce new research technologies; and recruiting new talent into imaging core facilities. 

How did your idea for the CZI project arise?

Actually the original idea came from the project’s co-PI, Dr. Cvic Innocent. She left the core as I was joining and luckily, we were able to transfer it to me. It really fits with my interests. Also, at Boston Children’s hospital, collaboration and education are a major focus so the proposal fits with all our aims.  

Why do you think a new prototype of imaging core facilities is necessary?

I have used other core facilities across universities and I feel that the ones that most benefit the research ecosystems are those where core managers and staff are given a lot of leeway in designing experiments and working one-on-one with PIs. A high level of collaboration and respect goes a long way in benefiting productivity, new technique development, and basic science advancement. I think core facilities fill an important gap between technique development and commercial availability. Core facilities in general homogenize access to instrumentation that is otherwise very expensive and limited to a selected few that can afford it. They also enable more standardized education guidelines, as they have more institutional knowledge and more institutional memory on how to use techniques correctly, and how remove bias from image analysis. Moreover, core managers and staff members are familiar with the PIs, their research and their needs – they can serve as bridges that counter the faster turnover of young scientists (PhDs and postdocs) in individual research labs. Core members have the context to help new lab members take up wherever previous members left off. 

How do you implement custom-made instruments and how do you balance your time between a custom-made instrument and catering to the entire user base, both in terms of monetary and personal support?

There have been times when certain groups wanted to pursue certain experimental techniques or niche techniques, for example three-photon microscopy. We explored different scenarios and funding options and realized we would have to hire a new person only to take care of that instrument alone. In that case, we don’t have the user base to satisfy the business model to pay for service contracts and hire a person whose sole job is three-photon microscopy. But for instance, the CZI grant allowed for a lot more flexibility of staff salary. This meant we could have a research assistant to help with implementations such as perfusion systems on stages or integrating spatial light modulation. This just requires significant planning well in advance. It also gave me the time to work on novel image analysis projects in the community.

One of the points of your proposal is to facilitate collaborations between core facilities. Why do you think this is important?

Our core at Boston Children’s hospital was part of the Intellectual and Developmental Disorder Research Center (IDDRC), and multiple cores already exist under the IDDRC. At Boston Children’s Hospital it was easy to implement more collabotations because we already had all the infrastructure in place. This collaborative environment works well for the benefit of the academics, and we were starting to roll out marketing strategies to engage industry contacts interested in working on multidisciplinary projects with multiple cores. 

On democratizing microscopy, what do you think about the need to democratize microscopy, 

Regarding democratization, I think there is a gap between academics and core members. Having less otherness is important, integrating the core into the departments, and having mutual respect and clear career paths allows for better and more constructive dialogues between group leaders, department chairs and core staff members. By reducing turnover you get more institutional knowledge and memory, and this just benefits everybody. 

What are future directions you envisage for your work, and in your new role?

I think being part of the CZI community was really helpful for me, to think about where core faciltiies and their staff fit in the hierarchy of academics and research. When I started as a core manager there was some uncertainty as to what the career path working in a core is. I am no longer a core manager, a specific opening for a professor position came about in my hometown – that’s a lightning in a bottle opportunity that I have to be grateful for.

What is the unique value and impact of the CZI program? Is there something that makes it unique compared to other grants or other types of funding?

The first thing that comes to mind is the push for open science, which I was a little bit surprised about, given the origin of CZI as a philantropic arm of Faecebook. So it was really nice to see this facet and this interest for open science and open methods. It has also allowed me to get in touch with other scientists with similar goals. As a core facility leader you are not tenured faculty, you are not a postdoc doing your own research, you are running a small business so being able to connect with others is key. Many people Ihave met at CZI have been great mentors on all sorts of topics.

How successful do you feel you were in accomplishing your goals and what are the greatest obstacles you have faced? 

I unfortunately left in the middle of the project so I wasn’t very successful in completing all the goals. I was in the middle of developing an educational seminar. I would have liked to roll it out as a micro-course in the community. I did a couple of workshops on STED and other topics, but I would have liked to establish a micro-course covering more topics. The biggest obstacle was that the project started during COVID. It was a huge challenge when you wanted to collaborate with people but you could only be 6 feet away from anyone. We had to move some of our microscopes to other rooms because they were too close to each other. That was the biggest obstacle. Also, the user base took a while to recover. 

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

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