14 September, 2022
The tenth anniversary of my time in the Flow Cytometry facility provides an opportunity to look back at the progress made since joining the Institute and growing the facility into the cutting-edge facility it is today. During this time I’ve had the opportunity to not only learn, and expand technical equipment to ensure that the facility stays at the forefront of the field, but also to gain new skills personally by participating in the global community of flow cytometry specialists and expanding into new areas such as training.
As I look back on my odyssey, my journey at the Institute over the past log decade (an intended flow pun), I can see that this has been a journey not only of the evolution of the facility, the Institute, the Campus but also of me.
How it all started
Following five and a bit years of running a small one-woman flow cytometry core at the University of Cambridge, I found out from my cytometry friend, Geoff, that he was retiring from his post as FACS Manager at the Babraham Institute and he asked whether I would be interested in having his job. The truth is that I had known of Geoff’s impending retirement for years and always wanted his job. I had heard of the Institute’s stately Babraham Hall, and the Institute’s great research, during in my first week in Cambridge in 2005. My visits to Geoff over the years showed me that it was a dynamic workplace with investments being made in new buildings and the latest equipment. The interview, held in June 2012, went well despite me being full of cold and I was offered the job. After a fond goodbye to the University, a quick tour around Mexico and Guatemala, I was eager enough to start the role a few days ahead of my official start date in order to learn the ropes from Geoff. My official starting date as Head of Flow Cytometry was the 10th September 2012.
The early days
When I started at the Institute, the facility already had some good machines; three analysers (FACSCalibur, LSRII and Fortessa), two sorters (FACSARIAIII and Influx) and was run by two members of staff; me and Arthur. Having spoken to a lot of scientists I could see that many were chomping at the bit to get their hands on more sophisticated equipment and so was I. Although I was trying my best to implement new best practices into the facility, I needed a bit of help for the message to sink in, so I invited my friend and colleague Derek Davies (Francis Crick Institute) to the Institute and asked him to teach a series of courses on flow cytometry. This worked wonders as people started to understand more about what they could get from flow, bookings increased and demands were being made for more sophisticated pieces of equipment. Soon an Imagestream joined the facility, then another Fortessa with our move to a dedicated facilities building in 2014.
Driving science and flow cytometry capability forwards
Throughout my years at the Institute I have spent time talking to group leaders and scientists to find out what they would like from the facility. The Institute’s researchers are smart; they have ideas of what they want to study and they want the best tools to get the most from their science. I have been determined to help them to achieve all of this. I have been fortunate enough to be involved with the work of so many groups and currently have a little project of my own that is at an exciting point at the moment (another blog for another time).
To help drive the Institute’s science forward and to transform the facility, I have written numerous grants, equipment proposals and business cases and am proud to have a great success rate. I have been encouraged throughout my time here to grow the facility and myself as a manager and a cytometrist by my line manager Martin Turner. Martin together with our late Director, Michael Wakelam, listened to my big ideas and took risks especially when I asked for extra people or extra instruments. Touch wood, those risks have been worth it and the facility continues to grow and flourish with six members of our expert team, and 15 state of the art instruments including five spectral cytometers. I don’t know if this is still true but at the beginning of the year, we had the greatest number of spectral sorters of any lab in the world. The building of the facility has allowed me to put together a fabulous team of flow experts which has increased our knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm for flow.
Supporting flow needs on the Babraham Research Campus
It hasn’t all been about the Institute, quite early on I wondered why there were people knocking on the windows of our first home in building 501 and it turned out that scientists from Campus companies couldn’t access the building but wanted to use the facility. This demonstrated a clear need and opportunity so I started actively talking to the Campus companies: what can the flow facility do for your company’s research? Meeting this demand increased the usage of the facility, and in turn this allowed me to hire additional members of the team to cover the extra work, and further develop the facility which has in turn benefitted Institute scientists.
The interactions with companies have varied over the years from personal consultancies, advising on the purchase their own in-house cytometers, to sorting and analysing their cells and housing company-owned cytometers within our facility. The Institute’s science has driven the sophistication of the equipment and it's been great to make such invaluable contributions to our amazing science. Alongside this I’m equally proud of our company work and how embracing that has allowed me to grow the facility into what it is today. My team and I have worked with scientists from over 60 companies over the years, many from the Campus, and have been actively involved with so many projects, helping start-ups to get much needed results for their next round of funding, sorted precious cells from experiments that cost tens of thousands of pounds per run and trained thousands of scientists from around the world through our face-to-face and virtual training courses. I am very much looking forward to our Spectral Cytometry meeting here in November where we will hear talks about taking a spectral experiment from start to finish in an interactive meeting. The superb setting and facilities at the Campus are allowing this key meeting to happen with ease and allows me to show everyone our fantastic facility.
Career development and life lessons
During my time at the Institute, I have been able to developed my career by attending several EMBO management courses, by being involved with Institute committees including leading the Institutes BI-4S (Senior Scientist and Support Staff) Forum and was promoted in 2017. I am grateful for the autonomy I have been given to grow the facility, myself and also for me to give my team career development and progression opportunities.
It's not just been about instruments, it's been about educating the facility users in all things flow and also in my lessons learnt as a scientist, world traveller, a manager, and now as a mum. Over the years I have helped people find and navigate buying a house, given advice on troubled relationships, recommended places to travel, and educated Generation Z (I had to look that one up) on the music of Take That and lessons that can be learnt from Bridget Jones.
Me as a cytometrist
The Institute has allowed me to take time to grow in expertise and reputation as a Cytometrist. I have been fortunate enough to attend conferences, user group meetings and visit other labs around the world. I have always been very involved with the flow cytometry community and this has been actively encouraged at the Institute. I have become more and more involved with the International Society for Advancement of Cytometry (ISAC) being a past Scholar and Shared Resource Laboratory Emerging Leader, and am now an ISAC Councillor. Through my journey to where I am now, I have been helped by numerous cytometrists and I am keen to give back so I regularly invite junior facility staff to visit the Institute to spend time learning from us. I help scientists from other institutes with no flow core support with panel design and data analysis, all of this as a thank you to the cytometrists who took time to help me over the last two decades of my cytometry career.
And me beyond cytometry
The last ten years have seen many changes in my life, many of which have been helped enormously by the Institute. Quite soon after I started at the Institute, I moved into a house on site in The Close with my then boyfriend, John and we spent six months waiting for the house we were buying together to be ready. When John proposed in July 2014, we both quickly agreed that we wanted to marry at Babraham village’s church. We celebrated our marriage at St Peter’s in April 2015, with photos around the grounds of the Institute before heading onto the reception.
Our two daughters were both born during my time at the Institute. Our first daughter, Emilia (aka Millie), was born in April 2017, followed by Evelyn (aka Evie) in September 2019. The Institute has been an incredibly supportive and generous place for raising a family. A good maternity package and flexible working has been invaluable and the Institute’s nursery is amazing.
All in all, it's been a dynamic ten-year journey of changes in the Campus, Flow cytometry technologies and my family and the Institute has been central to it all. Here’s to the next decade…
14 September 2022
By Rachael Walker