How did you get started in science?
I grew up surrounded by beautiful countryside in a small village called Radford Semele in Warwickshire, England. There, I attended the local grammar school in Leamington Spa, where my favorite subject was biology. It was during my undergraduate studies in Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham in England that I started to realize people could actually make a living by doing something they truly enjoyed.
What is your main research focus?
I focus on confocal microscopy (excuse the pun), producing images that not only tell a scientific story but also possess aesthetic value. I have been lucky to be a part of Sean Carroll’s team and have worked with many great colleagues in the laboratory over the years. Our group studies Evolutionary Developmental Biology, “EvoDevo” for short, using fruit flies and a host of other critters including yeast, butterflies, and snakes to understand the mechanisms of evolution.
How did you get into your current field of research?
When I first moved to Madison, I had a position in the microscopy resource on campus (now known as Laboratory for Optical and Computational Instrumentation or LOCI), where I was responsible for the light microscopes. Just after my arrival, we took delivery of one of the first four BioRad confocal microscopes in the USA, and I worked with many scientists on a host of confocal applications. A few years into the position, I worked with a couple of graduate students from the laboratory of a new faculty member, Sean Carroll. The specimens were great—double labels of fruit fly eye imaginal discs and fruit fly embryos. The students were fun and relaxed, and we collected some very lovely images. Sean became the first Hughes investigator on campus, bought a confocal microscope, offered me a job, and the rest is history. One of my first papers from Sean’s laboratory was published in BioTechniques. In fact, the cover image from the paper, a triple labeled Drosophila embryo, was voted as “Cover of the Year” in 1993.
As we are a methods journal, what do you see as the most pressing method need in your field?
This continues to be the understanding of what happens during development by the visualization of living cells in vivo at a range of magnifications. Methods are required that efficiently handle large datasets in order to analyze not only in seconds and minutes but also over evolutionary time what genes are doing and how they work.
What suggestions do you have for new scientists?
Do not fear failure—try lots of new things and ask loads of questions especially if you are using a million dollar microscope for the first time. Have fun doing the crazy experiments, but remember that all of those beautiful images you see on journal covers are the result of many failures and much hard work.
You are a speaker at the 2013 Virtual Symposium—what are you looking forward to about the event?
I am curious who will be watching out there and what their response to the talks will be.
What do you think about virtual education? Is this your first virtual education experience?
I think virtual education is great when it is done right as it allows the student to learn at his/her own pace and leaves the educator to perform a more efficient role in answering specific questions.
This is my first virtual gig, although I did help Sean with his HHMI Holiday Lectures on Science in 2005 titled “Evolution, Constant Change and Common Threads”. Those lectures, and a growing library of rich educational resources, are available at HHMI's BioInteractive web site.