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Everything started during a medical consultation when I was 8 years old. The doctor explained to me that autoimmune diseases occur when cells that should protect our body from infections “get confused” and attack our own healthy cells. I was totally amazed by that... well, I am still amazed!
During my postdoc, I established a reliable in vivo model to exclusively analyse the role of a type of white blood cells called neutrophils in the immune response. This model overcame many of the issues with the previously used model.
After the PhD, which I did in Mexico, I wanted to keep working in research and my mentor recommended that I do a postdoc in a "first-world laboratory". She also mentioned the advantages of working in a stimulating scientific environment without financial restrictions.
At the end of my postdoc, I established fruitful collaborative research projects in which my main input was to set up the experimental strategies for flow cytometric analysis. I enjoyed working on those projects a lot and I realised that providing advice about flow cytometry was more appealing for me than a classical research path.
The job offer was posted on the website of the International Society for Advancement of Cytometry. I had also spontaneously sent my CV to several flow cytometry facilities. The manager of the flow facility at the Gulbenkian Institute in Portugal did not have any positions available at the time but liked my CV a lot, so he recommended the position at EMBL to me.
I was very excited that I would be able to use my experience in flow cytometric analysis to help the researchers at EMBL with their research. Also, because the facility had a number of complex instruments that were new to me, I was eager to extend my skills by learning to work with them.
I perform cell sorting experiments for our users, I teach users how to operate cytometers and use data analysis software, and I give scientific advice about experimental design. Some users know exactly which experiments they want to do but others rely on the experience of the flow cytometrist to design an experiment and interpret the results. Additionally, I help to organise flow cytometry practical courses and conferences.
Many things are different. During your PhD and postdoc you have a project that 100% belongs to and depends on you. At the facility you only have contact with a bit of someone else’s project. Time management is also very different – in a PhD/postdoc you can organise your experiments as you want and go for a coffee while you run a gel or a PCR. At the facility you have tight schedules that involve someone else’s time, so you have less freedom in your daily schedule.
Yesterday was especially productive. I started the day by sorting cells for a user who had used CRISPR-CAS9 genome editing on the cells. Then I helped another user to set up an entire workflow for their FACS experiment (surface labelling). We processed the samples at the bench and then put them in the cytometer to collect the data. Today we analysed the results together.
It is always very nice when one of your users obtains exciting/sexy results thanks to an experiment that you suggested or helped to set up… it really gives a lot of satisfaction and a great boost to your confidence and motivation.
Sometimes I get very excited about someone else’s project and the possibility of using flow cytometry to do several experiments. However, it can be disappointing if they then decide to stop using flow cytometry or to give more priority to another subject or technique.
Totally, I had a very intense postdoc. I spent most of the weekends working in the lab and would arrive home very late during the week. My mood was tightly linked to the results of my experiments and it was not a healthy situation for me. Now, I have less stress, more free time outside the job and the option to spend an entire weekend without thinking about experiments.
I love travelling to discover new places or just to visit the friends I have all over the world. Additionally I play badminton and I watch movies and Colombian dramas (my guilty pleasure).
It was a lucky combination of both. I always wanted to travel and basically I have been in the countries that have good laboratories working on the subjects I wanted to study.
Many benefits. Besides the obvious ones like the professional experience, the possibility to learn another language and the chance to get acquainted with another culture, I would like to highlight the great opportunity that working abroad gives for meeting people from everywhere.
Regarding the drawbacks, I would say that being far away from your family is always the unpleasant part.
I see myself as a manager of a flow cytometry core facility.
If you really like to help people set up experiments or analyse data, and you are sure you won’t miss the bench, just go for it. Some people think that working in a facility means that you are not a scientist anymore, but that is not the case at all. You still have to follow the latest evolutions of the technology you are using and you are involved in many different projects, which you need to understand some of the background information for. You decide how much you want to get involved in the projects and what kind of input you want to provide. Most people are willing to listen, discuss and follow your suggestions as long as you have good ideas.
- 2015 – present: Flow Cytometrist, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelburg, Germany
- 2009 – 2013: Postdoc, Centre d'Immunologie de Marseille-Luminy, Marseille, France
- 2004 – 2009: PhD in Immunology, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City, Mexico
- 1998 – 2003: Bachelor of Microbiology, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá, Colombia