Position: Microscopist, Field: Microscopy, Organisation: Microscopy Otago.

Liz Girvan is a microscopist at the University of Otago. She looks after two scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) at the University’s centralised microscope facility (Microscopy Otago), keeping them running well and helping new users to get the most from them. She also does a lot of work for external clients and companies.

A dream job

After she left school, Liz studied tourism for a year, then worked in several jobs that were unrelated to science. Then, by chance, she saw the advertisement for her current position in the jobs section of the Otago Daily Times. She thought she’d give it a go, applied for the job and got it. She says, “I fell in love with it straight away and have never looked back!”

Every day is different

Liz loves the immense variety that her job offers. She says, “No day is ever the same. I can be looking at head lice, the internal structure of a marshmallow and a piece of a failed helicopter blade all in the same day!” She also enjoys the problem-solving that comes with her job. Whether it’s a problem with the microscope or a mysterious sample that needs to be identified, she finds it really satisfying to find a solution.

I love that I get to see so many things that most people don’t even know exist.

Playing and working

Doing microscopy well takes practice, so Liz makes sure she builds in some ‘play time’ every week. She takes samples of all kinds (something from her lunch, for instance, or bits and pieces that have been left behind by workmen) and visualises them using SEM or cryoSEM. This ‘play time’ is a great way of developing her skills and experience. It’s fun too – she never knows what she’s going to find.

During one of her ‘play’ sessions on the SEM, Liz took an image of some tin spheres of different sizes. These were nothing special in themselves – just a series of objects of known size that are used to calibrate the microscope (check that it’s providing accurate size measurements). Yet by tweaking the settings, she produced an image that gets people talking about what it could be. It won an image competition at Dunedin School of Medicine in 2008 and was posted on the internet. Since then, Liz has been getting emails from all over the world from people asking to publish her image. She calls it, with a smile, her “world-famous micrograph”!

Nature of science

Observing (with or without instruments such as microscopes) is an important aspect of doing science. Liz uses her ‘play sessions’ to keep her observational skills honed.

This article is based on information current in 2012.

    Published 29 February 2012