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#Womeninscience: Professor Gail McConnell
Professor Gail McConnell, Professor of Biophotonics at the Department of Physics at the University of Strathclyde.
What do you research?
My research is multidisciplinary. I have a background in applied physics, opto-electronics and non-linear optics. I’m normally applying my knowledge of physics to biology and biomedicine, and I do that by trying to develop new types of optical microscopes or microscopy methods to give biologists and biomedical researchers a better insight into the problems that they face.
How has your career developed?
I started my career as an optical physicist. It was not planned at all, but I’ve been at Strathclyde for my whole career. I studied there as an undergraduate and I did my PhD there. I had absolutely no intentions of staying in academia whatsoever: I was the first in my family to go to university, and I had no idea how to pursue a career in academia. It didn’t really occur to me that it was even an option! I had a job lined up in the telecoms industry ready to start when my PhD finished in September 2001. However, this coincided with significant world events; a lot of companies panicked and rescinded job offers to myself and my peers at the time. I was one of the unlucky few who were facing unemployment. My PhD adviser, Professor Allister Ferguson, said he had a few months’ worth of postdoc salary and asked if I would like it. At that point, yes was the answer. I had bills to pay! My adviser told me that the role would involve working in a new Centre for Biophotonics. I didn’t really know what that was because, until that point I had been developing lasers and testing their optical properties, and had never really done any applied laser work. So, I took the three-month postdoc not really knowing what to expect, and I really enjoyed it.
The Centre for Biophotonics, which I ended up directing about 10 years later, was a new microscopy facility. At that time there really weren’t very many microscopy facilities, at least not in the UK, which had confocal, multiphoton and widefield microscopes that researchers could access. My role involved helping the biologists to use the microscopes, but I had never used a microscope in my life. I had to very rapidly learn microscopy but I really enjoyed it. When working with the biologists, learning about microscopes and using my background in optical physics I started to recognise where some of the technology gaps were and thinking about how could I develop new instruments and new methods that could help biologists.
I was working at the time for an electrophysiologist called Prof Alison Gurney, who directed the Centre for Biophotonics, and is now at the University of Manchester. Alison suggested that as I was interested in research, I should apply for a fellowship. I didn’t know what a fellowship was, but she explained it to me and I applied for two different fellowships. I am almost certain that in today’s climate I would not have been successful, but at that time I was fortunate and, in 2004, I was offered a Royal Society of Edinburgh Personal Research Fellowship. I was relieved at having some job security for a few years and I was thrilled about being able to follow my own research interests.
About a month after starting my RSE fellowship I attended the Plymouth microscopy workshop as a student. There I met a researcher who had a NERC fellowship and I was telling her how excited I was. She congratulated me and was very encouraging, but also told me that it was going to be hard. I’m sorry to admit that I was quite dismissive. I think I may have been on a fellowship high. However, about a year later I realised why she had advised me thus. I realised exactly what I had signed up to - it was terrifying and I was totally unprepared. I have great empathy for new PIs who are setting up their lab because it’s easy for me to cast my mind back to feeling utterly overwhelmed as a new PI. There were dark times where I thought about giving up, but, correctly or incorrectly, I kept going. I had chosen to hold my RSE fellowship at Strathclyde for both work and personal reasons. I had already built up a good network at Strathclyde and I could see the opportunities for growth, but also my partner and family are close to Glasgow and it was a good fit for my interests outside of work.
I also realised the fellowship would give me the opportunity to do some travelling. I took full advantage of this and spent much of my time visiting other labs and getting a sense of how they do business. Doing this helped me establish international collaborations. One of those, for example, was with Dr. David Ogden in Paris. One of my first successful large-scale funding applications involved David - he was the project lead on an EU FP6 that started in 2006. That was my first involvement in funded international research while being a part of a large consortium and it was a great experience. I still work with some of the researchers from that collaboration, and I enjoy teaching at the annual Paris Neuroscience Workshop arranged by David and other colleagues in Université Paris Descartes.
My research has moved away from solely pursuing optical physics. Rather than developing optical microscopy instrumentation and methods, we’re also now pursuing applications in cell biology. Approximately half of my research group are now biologists. This is because about 5 years ago I realised that if we were going to be a successful biophysics group I needed to personally know more about biology, so I took myself into the lab and started learning about cell biology. Now I have the confidence to supervise, guide projects start new collaborations that I probably wouldn’t have been as comfortable pursuing previously. I’ve enjoyed cell biology a lot more than I was expecting to!
How does it feel to be able to pass on your knowledge to younger researchers?
I love it. It’s one of the best parts of my job. Although I do teach undergraduate physicists, most of my teaching experiences have been at postgraduate level, with PhD students in my research group. It’s pretty cool to be working alongside them in the lab, developing ideas and working as part of a research team. However, because my group members have such different backgrounds, I often find myself learning from them too.
Has your goal always been to become a Professor?
No! When I got my first fellowship, all I could think was how do I deliver on this and make a success of this. How do I establish myself? How do I grow my research activities? I was focusing on the current, rather than the future. Professorship wasn’t something that was on my radar until quite late. In May 2009 I was promoted to Reader and perhaps around that time I thought if I can be a Reader, maybe I should start thinking about being a Professor at some point. I think around that time was when It started to feel like it could be a possibility.
How did you become the director of the Centre for Biophotonics at the University of Strathclyde?
I was promoted to the Director of the Centre for Biophotonics at the same time I was promoted to Professor, in May 2012. At that point it kind of made sense as I was the active optical physics researcher within the Centre for Biophotonics and the person occupying most of the lab space! It was a decision made in agreement with the Principal of the University and it worked out quite well.
What support have you received throughout your career?
I think at a grass roots level the support of my partner, my family and friends has been vitally important. They don’t necessarily have to understand what I’m doing – indeed, that is often better!
I had very good support as an undergraduate from staff at the Department of Physics at Strathclyde. As a post-graduate, I had support from fewer members of staff, but I probably spent more time with my friends!
When I was becoming a PI I had support from members of staff from life sciences and physics, including Prof Alison Gurney and Prof Erling Riis. Having a broad network at Strathclyde was really useful, but much of the support I received was indirect or informal mentorship from academics outside of Strathclyde. Around that time I became a member of the Institute of Physics Instrument Science and Technology Committee, which I would chair much later in my career. At that time I was receiving suggestions of who I should speak to and what meetings would be beneficial to attend, which was very useful.
What do you think has been the biggest achievement in your career so far?
I think if you’d asked me this question 10 years ago it probably would have been the development of or application of the first white light super continuing laser for confocal microscopy. This was actually quite a quick study and turned out to be a vital time in my career. It was something that I had told the fellowship funders of the Royal Society of Edinburgh that I would try and I didn’t expect that it was going to be as useful as it was!
More recently, however, I think that the biggest achievements are not technical but relate to helping a succession of PhD students graduate from my group, go out into the wider community and make a difference. Also, ensuring the continued operation and success of the Plymouth course has been a great achievement. It is important to me that I am best supporting the next generation of researchers. This means providing opportunities for early career researchers to learn, grow and to enjoy some of the great experiences I’ve had. This includes attending international conferences, networking and helping them to shape their own research futures.
Do you think it is important to have female role models in science
I think it’s important that we have diversity in science rather than women. We all benefit when we can consider different viewpoints and think critically but openly.
Have you ever noticed a gender gap in science?
Of course. According to the 2017 statistics published by the Institute of Physics, at the post-doctoral level 21% of researchers are female. At the professorial level in the UK, only 11% are female. We could, and should, do better. I hope we can achieve a diverse population within science: sadly, I think it’s going to be slow to change, but I do believe it is possible.
Can you tell us about the Mesolens and your work with Brad Amos?
I became involved in the Mesolens project a few years after its conception. Brad Amos, who I had met in 2004 as a student at the Plymouth microscopy course, was one of the co-designers of the Mesolens. In 2009 Brad and I agreed to collaborate on the project and the prototype Mesolens moved from his MRC LMB lab in Cambridge to my lab in Strathclyde. I then took what is essentially an unusually large objective lens and built a confocal microscope around it! The Mesolens was designed for confocal use, this was work that Brad was unable to do independently in Cambridge, hence the reason for our collaboration. With my background in optical physics and Brad’s in instrumentation and biology we made quite a powerful team. We have collaborated on a number of projects since, but the Mesolens remains the primary focus of my research at Strathclyde.
We are now developing the technology and using it for cutting edge biomedical research. We receive specimens from researchers worldwide who wish to the be first to apply the Mesolens in their research. And within my own group, we are using the Mesolens to study the architecture of whole, mature biofilms, and we are performing mesoscopic imaging of whole mouse organs including the pancreas. We are also working on projects joint with clinicians in Edinburgh. Their current method is to use brightfield microscopy to assess islets: if they are round, they are good for transplant. But they can only see a few islets in a field of view, and brightfield is low contrast. We are therefore using the Mesolens to improve their assay, with the overall aim of making better use of transplant material. These are just a few examples of projects that I had never imagined when we were in the early stages of collaborating with Brad on the Mesolens project. We thought this would really only serve the mouse embryo community: we are working with these researchers in the UK and overseas, but the technology is so new that new applications keep emerging.
What kind of challenges did you face and how do you overcome these?
The biggest challenge is funding, as there is a shortage of funding for science, and this drives competition. Sometimes competition is good and can present a useful challenge, but one of the other problems is that it can affect the type of funding proposals that are welcomed by funding agencies, because what they need is guaranteed results. There’s a good chance that I would have had funding for the Mesolens project at an earlier stage, but we had to be convinced that what we had was a reliable technology, that would serve the biomedical research community. We therefore had to wait a few years until the MRC Next Generation Optical microscopy Initiative call was announced and we were among the lucky few to receive some funding.
There have also been a number of technical issues. For example, to use the Mesolens as an objective in a confocal microscope we need gigantic scanning mirrors. Normally, scanning mirrors in a confocal microscope are 7 mm in diameters. Ours are approximately the same size as a car wing mirror, and that presents a challenge for us. We have spent quite a long time trying to reduce the jitter and improve the repeatability of the scanning system. This is working, but there is always room for improvement and we would like to do better.
I think one of the other challenges is trying to forecast and manage expectations of the biomedical research community because as soon as you have a totally new technology, immediately everyone wants to compare it to what is already out there. We recognise that what we have is something very different to the usual microscopes, and it’s been an interesting process watching the community follow the progress of the Mesolens development.
What is next for you in your career?
Technically, I would really like to build on the early success of the Mesolens. We are starting to see trends and interests in our work, and we must listen to what the community wants and needs. For example, when I attend an international conference, I am almost always asked “Can you use the Mesolens for light-sheet?”. There are good fundamental reasons as to why this is incredibly difficult, and I’ve been working for about the last year or so to identify how we can use the Mesolens as an objective for light sheet microscopy. The reason we are so interested in this and why we keep being asked about it is because at the moment, our data acquisition is very slow. One project, which involves imaging whole lobes of mouse lung, takes around 4 days to acquire one data set. Light-sheet is the microscopic standard of speeding up 3D data acquisition and that normally uses a standard objective lens and a modified microscope. However, the Mesolens isn’t immediately compatible with light-sheet. We really need is a light sheet that is about 6mm long and about a few microns thick, and that is a huge optical challenge. We have recently acquired some really exciting early data that suggests it might be possible to make a long, thin lightsheet. We realise that this work would have broader utility outside of our Mesolens project, and we look forward to sharing our methods with the community if we are successful.
I’m also excited about future applications of the Mesolens. I mentioned earlier that we are studying whole mature biofilms: we are seeing some new structures that, at least to the best of our knowledge, have never been seen before. Antimicrobial resistance is a global challenge we hope that the new structures we are seeing can increase our understanding of biofilm formation and inform new ways to disperse bacterial colonies in clinical environments.
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