Position: Technical Leader, Field: Microscopy, Organisation: Microscopy Otago.
Allan Mitchell is the technical leader at Microscopy Otago, the centralised microscopy facility at the University of Otago. He oversees the team of microscopists there, who train researchers throughout the University to get the best out of the instruments.
Falling into microscopy
Allan says he ‘fell into’ microscopy. At high school, he knew he wanted to do science but had no real idea how to go about it. After he finished school, Allan got a job in the Anatomy Department at Otago, working for a brand new researcher (not a microscopist) who was still in the middle of setting up his lab. While Allan was waiting for his new boss to get organised, he did some basic microscopy training in another research group in the same department. Then, 6 weeks later, the electron microscopist in the Anatomy Department resigned, and Allan took his place. He’s been doing the job ever since!
Something new every day
Allan has been an electron microscopist at Otago for over 30 years – but it’s still challenging and exciting. He points out that the technology of microscopy is always changing and so are the projects – Microscopy Otago works with a constant stream of researchers from throughout the University who want to use microscopy in their work. In just the past year, Allan has worked on projects ranging from how nerve cells communicate with each other to how air spaces in chocolate improve texture.
It’s a constant state of “Wow! That’s really exciting!”
For every project, Allan and his team are involved during the exciting stage of figuring out how the researchers can answer their science questions using microscopes – as Allan puts it, the “gosh, golly, wow!” stage. Once each researcher is up and running on the microscope, the Microscopy Otago team moves on to help troubleshoot the next project. He says, “The job is always changing, always new – and every day brings new challenges.”
Away from the lab, Allan’s passion is rocks and geology. Until about a decade ago, he was into American cars of the 50s and 60s, but he found he was starting to come home from road trips in his classic cars with a bootload of interesting rocks! He sold his cars and bought a four-wheel drive and transitioned from road trips to off-road trips (for collecting rock specimens). Allan counts himself lucky that several of the geologists at the University use Microscopy Otago’s instruments to study their rock samples. Working with them means he can indulge his interest in rocks on the job!
Nature of science
Gathering data is an important aspect of doing science. Allan and his team work with scientists at the University of Otago to help them decide which microscope is best to use for gathering the data they want.
This article is based on information current in 2012.