Beyond the usual suspects
“Having trained as a physicist, I find the Francis Crick Institute’s strategy of ‘discovery without boundaries’ very exciting. Adventurous multidisciplinary research like this requires a cast of characters that includes many people outside of the traditional academic career path…”
One of the by-products of conventional academic career progression is that most researchers rarely stay in one place for more than three or four years at a time; the typical length of a PhD or postdoctoral position. Without some way of maintaining continuity, the flux of knowledge and expertise into and out of research groups would cause significant disruption to their long-term goals.
This is where the hidden workforce of an institute – often those who are not necessarily on the standard academic treadmill – really form the glue that holds the institute together. Sometimes this is in the form of a ‘laboratory research scientist’ embedded in a research lab, providing a persistent presence and accumulating the knowledge that would otherwise leak away as other lab members move on. Often, the domain knowledge is concentrated in core facilities, which we call Science Technology Platforms.
I work in the electron microscopy science technology platform, a team that works with the institute’s research groups to image biological structures at the nanoscale. As well as many projects for which standard protocols and technologies already exist, we also do a lot of development work, which has increasingly involved developing new hardware and software systems. In my experience, we need to work with people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds within the institute to be able to do this, from the engineering workshop at the very initial design stages to the scientific computing team for the final data analysis.
A network of knowledge
It is incredibly hard for anyone to know everything about even a moderately sized project. From bench-work to preparing samples, through the technology required to image them, to the computational knowhow to extract meaning from Big Data, amongst other things, few people obtain a deep knowledge of all aspects. Therefore, easy access to domain-knowledge is vital in keeping research ticking over without constant reinventing of the wheel. For example, knowing who to ask for advice on why your microscope images are blurry, which grade of stainless steel is safest to build into an electron microscope or how to analyse terabytes of image data is vitally important and can prevent enormous amounts of pain and wasted time.
Sometimes it is tempting, almost as a matter of pride, to try to learn all of the different aspects yourself, but attempting to do this inevitably leads to plunging down endless rabbit holes of unfamiliar information (I know, I have tried!). At least to start with, seeking help from the resident experts is the smart way forward, and is only possible when this resource of ‘hidden gurus’ is created and nurtured.
This recognition of expertise can even be extended beyond the walls of the research institute itself. Following on from the success of an astronomy citizen science project called ’Galaxy Zoo’, realising that humans have highly developed visual processing abilities (still better than computers), we released a citizen science project of our own, called Etch a Cell (bit.ly/etchacell) that asks members of the public to contribute to our research by helping us to analyse some of our electron microscopy images.
Credit where it is due
The public face of scientific research is often that of the high-flying group leader reporting on their team’s latest breakthrough via a press release or interview. While these are valuable channels for communicating the end of a research journey, it can sometimes overlook the many people that are involved along the way to making such results possible. Beyond the usual suspects in the labs, multidisciplinary research at a place like the Crick is carried out and supported by people from a range of different backgrounds, both academic and non-academic.
While the currency for recognition is fairly clear for academic researchers (publications and citations), it is often less clear for the people working behind the scenes. There is lots of room for creative ways to tell the stories of this diverse cast of contributors, and the Crick’s Craft & Graft: Making Science Happen exhibition is an excellent way to start the conversation.
Martin Jones is the deputy head of microscopy prototyping in the electron microscopy science technology platform at the Francis Crick Institute in London. He also devised and runs the Citizen Science Project for the Crick – Etch a Cell.