Case study

Microscopy manager — Ian

Ian enjoys working with a variety of specimens and still gets wowed by what appears on the screen. Find out what's involved in his work with the microscope

How did you get your job?

I missed the required grade to start a PhD so I took a two year post working as a protein crystallographer for the Institute of Food Research. When that contract ended, I applied for a job at the University of Warwick managing a crystallography lab; from there I took a sideways step into the microscopy facility in the same department.

What's a typical working day like in the lab?

I usually grab a few cups of coffee while checking emails in the morning, answer any queries then I go down to the lab and make sure everything is still working. If it isn't, which can be a couple of times a month, I have to work out what I can repair myself and what needs an engineer.

I'll then either have people to teach on the microscopes or specimens that need preparing and looking at.

I usually spend around four hours a day on a microscope collecting images and a couple of hours designing experiments.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

It's hugely varied. Electron microscopes and confocal microscopes are specialised pieces of equipment. Many people who want to use them can't justify the time it takes to get trained and so pass the samples to me to work with.

As well as routine things like cells treated with drugs or samples of virus to look at, I occasionally get incredibly rare specimens such as pieces of rock from Martian meteorites and bacteria from deep sea hydrothermal vents or deep caves. I get a thrill out of knowing I'm the first person to see something.

What are the challenges?

Because of the varied subjects, I have to read up on specimens, often in a hurry. I may only get a day or two's notice to become an 'instant expert' in a subject before we start the experiments.

How relevant is your biochemistry degree?

It was essential - how enzymes behave, how they interact and how cells work is central to what I do.

How has your role in the lab developed?

When I started I was just looking after two big microscopes. As technology has advanced we've acquired more advanced equipment and much more of it - we have over 130 people using our microscopes now.

Experiments that were difficult ten years ago are now routine but I have to spend much more time keeping the machines in running order.

What are your career ambitions?

I'm very happy in my job - I don't want to change career. Ambition for me now is about applying for grants to upgrade our equipment and to stay up to date with the latest methods.

What advice can you give to others?

Be enthusiastic - microscopy takes a certain amount of passion and that needs to be obvious to potential employers.

Getting work experience helps enormously; this might not seem easy to arrange but writing to university departments directly does work.

It's such a varied field that it doesn't really matter which science you're into, there will be a role for microscopy in it but you need to be versatile and read around other subjects that also use them.

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