Dr Louise Hughes is a biological electron microscopist at Oxford Brookes University and runs the BioImaging Suite in the Faculty of Health and Life Science. She is an expert in scanning and transmission electron microscopy, with a specialisation in electron tomography. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from mouse articular cartilage to her favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind. It has been great to interview Louise and we hope you enjoy reading it.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I am a biological electron microscopist. I then wait for people to either look confused or, if they have drunk enough, try to pronounce it. I then explain that I study biology using very powerful microscopes.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I grew up in various rural areas around the south east of the UK, at times living a few miles from the nearest neighbour and others in small villages or towns. My brother and I had a lot of freedom to roam and when I was old enough I used to ride out on my horse for hours at a time.
I went to an unusual school. It was vegetarian, self-governing, had no uniform and we called our teachers by their Christian names.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I went to an unusual school. It was vegetarian, self-governing, had no uniform and we called our teachers by their Christian names. I always liked the arts and sciences but I am not sure I excelled at anything until after I left school. I was bullied a fair amount and that was challenging. Most of my free time at school was spent reading in the library.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: I can’t recall anything in particular but quite a bit was about my potential if I just knuckled down to work.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: I originally thought I would go into physiotherapy but decided later to follow the subject I most enjoyed, which was biology. This was partly inspired by the teachers I had in that subject. I have had eureka moments, but that was much later on and when doing my research.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: I always enjoyed biology. The teachers were very good and often unintentionally amusing. For example, I remember some members of my class were confused over what a fern actually looked like so our teacher paused what he was saying and promptly dashed out of the room. We waited for a few minutes, not knowing what was going on, before he burst back in clutching an enormous 5 foot fern and dramatically announcing “THIS is a FERN”.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: Aberystwyth university and yes, it was my first choice of uni.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I think I may have changed slightly and done bioengineering or something along those lines. It is only now I am older I realise how much I enjoy the engineering side of science. I don’t regret choosing biology as I enjoy what I am currently doing a great deal.
We got along very well as we were on the same “wavelength” with regard to our topics of interest.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: Yes, Dr. Iolo ap Gwynn. He was my masters degree supervisor and he also supervised my PhD. We got along very well as we were on the same “wavelength” with regard to our topics of interest. He inspired a lot of electron microscopists and I know several still in the same field. Passion counts for a lot when teaching and demonstrating your field of research and I was lucky that a lot of the lecturers I had at university were very passionate about their work and biology in general.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: I wanted to have better employment opportunities and thought doing a masters degree would give me an edge over other candidates. Upon doing my masters in biological electron microscopy, I fell in love with the field. I was offered a funded PhD position and followed what I enjoyed.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I stayed at Aberystwyth university, spending several months in Switzerland with a research centre but doing the qualification through Aber. That was also where I did my PhD.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: “The structure and development of mouse articular cartilage. A microscopy study.” I used several different microscopy techniques to look at the growth, development and structure of cartilage in the knee, specifically on the surface of the tibia. With electron microscopy, the way in which the sample is prepared makes a large difference in what you observe, so it is important to always optimise the sample preparation to reduce the damaging changes going on in the specimen and to focus on the questions you are seeking answers to. I showed how this varied depending on certain chemical conditions and was able to demonstrate particular confirmations of the collagen fibers in the cartilage and at what age they formed.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: I don’t think I would, I enjoyed my PhD and was very happy while doing it.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: My current job role is running the Bioimaging unit at Oxford Brookes University. Our facility has excellent light and electron microscopes but I don’t do research with the light microscopy (I have a lot of very experienced colleagues who know far more than I do about them) side as the electron microscopy takes up all my time. I now focus on 3D electron microscopy with particular emphasis on plant samples. I am looking at the cell biology of different plant tissues and species and mapping the distribution and number of organelles (small cell compartments that are often surrounded by membranes) in three dimensions. It is a lot of work but fascinating at the same time. The advent of 3D EM is certainly opening the field to explore cell ultrastructure in a way that up until relatively recently has been extremely time consuming and difficult.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: I think all of it has contributed. I have worked in several different areas, from cartilage to parasites, to human diseases in tissues, to viruses in cells and now plants. The beauty of microscopy is that it applies across biology and new samples are always being brought forward for us to study.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: I think large volume 3D EM is undergoing a massive revolution at the moment and that this is going to progress for some time. The advent of 3D printing and virtual reality have opened up how we can examine data and I don’t think it will be too long before these are routine techniques and perhaps even built into some microscopy systems.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: Life from other planets.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: Hopefully to enthuse more people about science and microscopy in general.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: I am working on a book about electron microscopy, I am constantly coming up with new items of 3D printed jewellery inspired by and based upon biological electron microscopy and I am constantly producing microscopy artwork. Due to moving our facility to another part of the building my public outreach has taken a back seat for a while, but I hope to extend this in the future.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Believe in yourself. “Your life is your own, rise up and live it.” (quote from Terry Goodkind)
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Get as much experience as you can and read about the topic. Learn how the microscopes work, down to the physics of the beam and lenses. It makes a huge difference to understanding how to get the best out of the instrument you are using. Also, think about how you pursue your career. For research you will need a good foundation and degrees from a university, but you can also get a lot of practical experience by taking up apprenticeships and seeing if this is the correct path for you. My sister has completed a physics apprenticeship and will be pursuing this career further via a degree.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind. It is a fantasy story about taking hold of your life and not letting external things dictate what and who you should be, that it is ok to be yourself, with less than subtle allusions to religion. I read it at a time when I was letting go of my religion (I was very devout when younger) and acknowledging my atheism, which involved a fair amount of grief but ultimately was rewarding. It is not my favourite book, but certainly one that resonated with a path I was already taking.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: A book by M. A. Hayat called Principals and Techniques of Electron Microscopy: Biological Applications. The book is a fantastic introduction to preparing biological samples for electron microscopy. It is my go to bible.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: Pina Colada
If you’d like to find out more about Dr Louise Hughes you can check out her academic profile and Twitter page.