Core strengths: an interview with Diana Ordonez

Of all the tools that Diana Ordonez used to study populations of immune cells during her PhD and postdoc research, flow cytometry was the most important. Now she uses her experience and skills to advise and support other researchers as a Flow Cytometrist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany.
Diana Ordonez
Diana Ordonez. Image credit: Hugo Samano.

When did you first decide that you wanted to be a scientist?

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!

What was the highlight of your PhD/postdoc research?

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.

What motivated you to do a postdoc after your PhD?

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.

And why did you turn to a career in flow cytometry after the postdoc?

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.

How did you hear about the position at the EMBL flow cytometry facility?

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.

What appealed to you about the job?

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.

What are your main responsibilities as a flow cytometrist?

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.

How different is it working in a core facility compared with PhD and postdoc research?

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.

To give us an idea of your typical working day, please tell us what you did yesterday.

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.

Which aspect of your job do you find most rewarding?

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.

And what is the biggest downside?

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.

Do you now find it easier to get the work-life balance right than when you were a postdoc?

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.

What do you spend your free time doing?

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).

Your career has seen you work and study in many different countries – did you plan to do that or was it enforced by the opportunities that came up?

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.

Have you experienced any particular benefits or drawbacks from living internationally?

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.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

I see myself as a manager of a flow cytometry core facility.

What advice would you give to early career researchers who are interested in working for a 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.

Diana Ordonez CV

  • 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