Flow Cytometrist at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM) in Oxford.
“It’s really important not to see technical roles as inferior. You learn a lot of techniques and work with a lot of different people. You’re often the go-to person when people are stuck with a technique. Research assistants are good people to know!”
Start of career
Career in brief
I did a sandwich degree in applied biology at the University of Nottingham which included three work placements, one of which involved DNA sequencing and cloning. I’ve always been technically minded, and when I finished my degree, a job came up here at the WIMM to be a research assistant with a leaning towards sequencing. A new DNA sequencing machine arrived the day after I started in 1993 and I was tasked with getting good results out of it, so I set about learning new DNA extraction techniques, reading up on software, and figuring out how the machine operates.
Eventually I began to run a sequencing service as the new technique was so much better than the old one. In that job I got involved in the WIMM’s contribution to the human genome project, and then a project comparing the same gene in 23 different species. Then I went back to doing more traditional research assistant work for six months until, in 2006, a job became available here in the flow cytometry lab which seemed a good fit to my skills. I’ve been here ever since.
How I spend my days
One of the main aspects of my job is performing cell sorts for researchers. They fluorescently label their cell samples, bring them to me and I run the cell sorting machines in the facility. The sorters look through the cells one by one and pick out particular cells based on their physical or chemical characteristics and fluorescent labels on their cell surface. It’s like if you had a bag of Smarties and only wanted the red ones ― you’d label them with a tag that only sticks to red. The difference is that these machines can sort cells at up to 25,000 cells a second, look at up to 16 parameters and sort four populations simultaneously.
Running the cell sorts involves advising people on their experimental set up and helping them interpret their results. We also train people on how to use the analysers ― more basic cytometers that allow people to analyse their own cells ― so there’s a teaching element, and we’re often asked to help as we walk past. I also get involved in fixing the machines when they break down or need careful adjustments to maintain the best results.
It has to be my 4-5 year’s work on the human genome project. Being involved in something like that, so big and newsworthy, was really exciting.
Time management ― not my own but other people’s! There’s a lot of demand for the facilities and only so much time in the day. I do my best to fit people in and juggle different people’s needs, but it can be difficult.
My most valuable skills
Technical skills with different equipment and techniques as you would expect, but also communication and people skills. So many people are relying on you, so you have to be organised and personable. I’m also fairly laid back!
What inspires me
My first manager here in the flow cytometry facility was a woman named Ann Atzberger. She taught me everything I know about flow cytometry. She was extremely good technically and could take a machine apart and have it back together by the end of the day.
Words of wisdom
There’s nothing wrong with being a research assistant if you think you’re not cut out to do a PhD ― it doesn’t have to be a stepping stone. You learn so many different techniques that it can be quite flexible. Being a research assistant means you can go in whatever direction you want.
I hope to stay here at the WIMM and in the flow cytometry facility. Flow cytometry is developing all the time ― as the technology evolves we get better and better results, and there’s always something new to learn. I’m happy to stay in this developing field.