"Science, art and the study of small things": The microscopyist in the spotlight (2023)

Dr. Kerry Thompson. Photo: Martina Regan Photography

Dr Kerry Thompson from the University of Galway explains how working with a microscope fits in with the wider research community.

“Microscopy and imaging are core techniques in the global cutting-edge research ecosystem,” explains Dr Kerry Thompson, an imaging scientist at the University of Galway. Thompson currently leads development at the Anatomy Imaging and Microscopy (AIM) facility.

AIM is the main microscopy and imaging research infrastructure at the University of Galway and operates in a dual role as a service provider and research facility.

In 2020, it was funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) to develop microscopy training programs.

A large part of his role is connecting communities "through local, national and international events, analyzing the infrastructure landscape and planning strategic acquisitions for the future."

Thompson recently received a €3.6 million grant from Science Foundation Ireland and the University of Galway to create a Center of Excellence for Multimodal Imaging. As part of the project, three new, high-end systems will be introduced to the campus later this year. “I am looking forward to launching the new systems (super resolution, deep tissue multiphoton imaging and mass electron microscopy).”

"Images are generally key ingredients in many high-impact posts"

Tell us about your current research.

On a daily basis, as a microscopist, I often take part in many multidisciplinary projects at the same time. My involvement in these projects ranges from advising on study design to taking pictures under the microscope. Every few weeks we have a new super interesting challenge.

I am currently working closely with members of my AIM team on projects for Professor John Dalton and his molecular parasitology group and withDra. Cynthia Colemanin corals containing bioinks for bone regeneration.

Internationally, I am collaborating with the Global Bioimaging consortium to write best practice recommendations for professional development and pathways for imaging scientists. We hope to publish an article in the coming months.

Why do you think your research is important?

Images are generally key ingredients in many high-impact posts. As professional microscopyists, we assist in gathering temporal and spatial resolution data to place an object in a structural context. We provide dynamic and kinetic information that can be correlated at high resolution and high magnification.

The skills, perspectives, and training offered by fundamental or platform technology researchers underpin much research at universities and research institutes. This was evidenced by the massive expansion of support for such groups by philanthropic organizations such as CZI. The pace of technology development has been phenomenal even in the last 10 years.

“I really enjoyed the inborn creativity and freedom of exploration in science”

Three Nobel Prizes in microscopy and imaging techniques were awarded between 2008 and 2017. Along with this, the "silent revolution" of the mass electron microscopy community, led by scientists such as Dr Lucy Collinson and Prof. Paul Verkade, has gained tremendous momentum in recent years. short period of time. Nature has listed it as one of the techniques to consider in 2023.

Later this year in Galway, we will make the first volume on electron microscopy techniques available to Irish scientists. Combine this with advances in bioimaging analysis and machine learning techniques, it is certainly a very exciting time to get involved in this aspect of microscopy.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a child, I was fascinated by the natural world. My parents have always been very supportive, allowed and encouraged me to indulge my innate (if messy) curiosity.

My university experience allowed me to find a field where all the things I love come together: science, art and the study of small things with fascinating structures.

For my undergraduate studies, I chose biomedical sciences with a specialization in human anatomy. It was an interesting career, probably ahead of its time, and for which I devoted a third of my studies to computer science.

"It's real frontier science"

My last year of project with Professor Dockery was probably the key turning point in realizing that I wanted to stay in research or in college. The innate creativity and freedom of exploration in science appealed to me, as did the beautiful images I realized I could capture to show off my samples. It was like this great selection and combination of technologies and techniques to adapt and apply.

I love my job – the darker the theme, the better.

What are the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Probably one of the biggest challenges we face right now is staffing for platforms, along with the career progression and pathways for this cohort of tech scientists.

There are many ways to become an imaging scientist and usually no two people share the same story or chose the same path or route to get there. Many of them are now employed as technicians or civil servants, some as scientists, some more related to the administration.

As a community, we fall somewhere in between all these positions. We focus on the development and implementation of new technologies and apply our skills extensively to a wide range of samples and work with multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary groups. This is true frontier science. This is completely contrary to the expected norm for scientists in a traditional university environment. In order to progress and advance, employees often struggle against the usual KPIs, so we really need to rethink how we support these types of roles.

There must be a long-term, sustainable investment in qualified staff to ensure the best use of the demanding technologies we are implementing and to truly ensure that our national sponsors get the best possible investment in national infrastructure.

I hope my work with the Global Bioimaging Careers group will help to better inform our policy makers and employers to implement more flexible and diverse career structures that take into account the complexity of these types of roles for staff working in this space. Globally, the community will meet in South Africa in October this year and we will make this recommendation official.

Do you think public involvement in science has changed in recent years?

I think the public has never been more aware of what we do as scientists and researchers or how the scientific method works. Fortunately, my field is very well suited to public participation because it is very visual and can actually be considered an art form in its own right.

Some of the first images of the Covid-19 virus seen by the public were taken using transmission electron microscopes. Microscopy and imaging have been instrumental in understanding what the virus looked like and how it manipulated cells, etc.

I am Honorary Secretary for Education and Support at the Royal Microscopy Society (based in Oxford) and we run an international program to help primary school children (in partnership with the Irish Microscopy Society). We lend the kits with eight microscopes, activities, and samples to the schools free of charge for one term, and sometimes we visit the schools, weather permitting.

Teachers are free to explore their own samples or use activities that follow the curriculum. Microscopy and imaging are linked to many broader educational topics (reading, numeracy, descriptive skills, and the arts), in addition to physics, chemistry, and biology science. We hope that exploring the mini-beast or analyzing the basal cells of an onion will capture the imagination and inspire the next generation of microscopy.

I believe that the public has the right to know what is being funded with taxpayers' money and what research teams are working on, and to be an inspiration to the next generation. Children can see who real scientists and researchers are. This is probably one of the coolest aspects of my job - watching children look through a microscope for the first time and focus on something like iridescent scales on a butterfly's wings and get excited. It puts everything else into context and reminds me why I even got into this.

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