Turning point: Lucy Collinson

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Microbiologist changes career paths and learns the nuances of microscopy and management.

Credit: DAVID BACON/CRUK LRI

Lucy Collinson knew little about the machinery of cells when she started working in electron microscopy. But since 2006 she has been head of the Electron Microscopy Unit at Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute, in charge of helping 40 research groups to see cells of all sorts with clarity. In February, her team and the University of York, UK, won a £2-million (US$3-million) grant from funders including the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) to buy a state-of-the-art machine that can do both light and electron microscopy, enabling new sample preparation techniques.

How did you get into electron microscopy?

Towards the end of my PhD in microbiology at Queen Mary, University of London, I gave my bacteria (Porphyromonas gingivalis, involved in gum disease) to the electron-microscopy facility to assess their virulence. For three years I had been looking at bands of bacterial proteins on gels. Suddenly I was looking at the bacteria. It was amazing.

I later applied for five postdocs, and three involved electron microscopy. I wasn't particularly looking for that, but it must have been on my mind. I went to work with Colin Hopkins at University College London, doing cell biology and immunology. He did not mind that I didn't know how cells behaved and had never used an electron microscope. He offered to teach me.

Was it daunting changing direction?

No; I had been considering a shift. During my PhD, I went to a careers lecture where the speaker said that after his doctorate, he had changed direction. He said that what you learn in one field can usually be applied to another, and that interdisciplinary work is where the exciting advances are often made. I had assumed that I would have to stay with microbiology. Once I realized that I didn't have to, I started looking at other disciplines.

Why did you decide to run a facility instead of focusing on your own research?

During my postdoc I got bored being tied to one line of research. There were not many electron microscopists in our faculty, so we got many requests to help on projects. I liked working on multiple research tasks.

How did you adjust to a management role?

I have four senior scientific officers under me, all experts in electron microscopy, so I had to learn management skills. I had good support from my boss and advice from friends in human resources, who told me that I should listen closely to those I manage. Because I had been working on my own, I was used to making decisions and following through myself. It took two or three years to get a handle on managing people and learning to listen. Management is definitely something that you have to learn.

Is your current role much different from that of an academic at a university?

Yes. I have a good overview of lots of topics, but I am not focused on one area. I see myself as an academic, but that is not how people from outside the facility look at you. They don't always realize that you have done a PhD and a postdoc; they see you as a pure technician. Once we start projects, people realize that we understand what we are talking about. We help them to design their experiments.

What difficulties have you faced in applying for grants such as the MRC award?

Before we got this one, we had just applied for a big virtual-microscopy grant through the Wellcome Trust. It was denied, which was upsetting; so much work went into putting the grant together over a year, and there were many people involved. The MRC grant was completely the other way round. I met with a couple of colleagues last year who invited me to join them. We had four weeks to put the grant together, and we got it. Sometimes you can spend months and months putting stuff together and you don't get anywhere, and sometimes you get lucky and it all falls into place.

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Additional information

Interview by Katharine Sanderson

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Related external links

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Sanderson, K. Turning point: Lucy Collinson. Nature 497, 149 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7447-149a

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