Career profile: Erin Tranfield, Head of the Electron Microscopy Facility

Core facilities are becoming a crucial component of modern research institutions. They provide scientists with access to cutting-edge instrumentation and expertise in a cost-effective way. Always driven by her curiosity, EMBL alumnus Erin Tranfield built an international career at the interplay of biological and space research which ultimately took her to Portugal where she is the Head of the Electron Microscopy Facility at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência. In today’s interview she navigates her career path while discussing what working in a core facility looks like, the skills needed and academic culture issues.

You can find the full interview below and if you are interested in this career area, you can find additional resources at:

Core facilities: Shared support – NatureJobs Blog article
Careers in Core Facility Management – Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology
Beyond the lab: Academic Core Facility Management – YouTube video from Vanderblit University


What first got you interested in science?
To be honest, and as dumb as it might sound, I do not totally know. For as long as I can remember I was always a science person. I grew up on a farm in rural Canada, surrounded by nature, with the night sky above me. The more people I know, the more I realise now how fortunate I was. Many people have never seen the Milky Way and I had it every evening for most of my childhood. That’s what first got me interested in science. I was not really a fan of physics and my natural tendency was towards biological sciences which lead me to pursue a biology degree and it has gotten me here. I don’t quite know how but it is been an unpredictable adventure!

This adventure took you to work at the interface of space and life science research, can you tell us a bit about your career path?
If I had to summarise my career path, I would say that I always followed my curiosity. Because my curiosity goes into many different directions, so did my career path.

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Victoria, I did a co-op programme that gave me access to up to 16 months of paid work experience. The degree takes longer, but you really get hands on experience in the laboratory, far beyond the regular bench laboratory classes. In my case, I joined a hospital to work in pulmonary and heart pathology and it was there that I first met scanning electron microscopy to study the effects of heart transplant rejection. I really loved studying the heart and learning electron microscopy and that fuelled my curiosity for scientific research.

When I finished my undergrad, I had a big vision. I was going to med school but unfortunately, they didn’t want me! I had a small midlife crisis at the age of 20 and then I thought, okay, I will apply to graduate school. I was initially accepted into a masters program to study how air pollution affects the heart. The project got bigger and bigger, and at the same time, the university was trying to increase the number of graduate students, so they offered me the opportunity to upgrade my Master’s to a PhD. Indeed, I never finished a Master’s or started a PhD, I just transitioned halfway through. Back in 2000, electron microscopy was not a very sexy technique and it was sort of fading. However, I really liked it so I pursued my PhD with a technical focus around scanning and transmission electron microscopy in two- and three-dimensional imaging.

Then I followed my interest yet again. One day I was watching the news and they were featuring how my university was hosting a 3-month summer school from the International Space University (ISU). A space geek at heart, I started to regularly join the public evening seminars even if I had no idea what they were talking about. It was there I learned that they had an entire department about the human body in space. This got me very excited and I decided to apply for the next summer school. Lucky me, I got accepted into the programme with a full scholarship and my PhD supervisor gave me a sabbatical for 3-months to move to Strasbourg, France. That was actually my first trip across the ocean.

In the program, I was exposed to an entirely different field in a very international, interdisciplinary community of students and instructors. I learned that one of the big questions for NASA was how does lunar dust affect human health. The methodology to study air pollution and dust toxicity is actually identical to studying lunar dust toxicity and I was offered a postdoc position at NASA Ames in California. I had two other fabulous post-doc offers, but it was my love for space that led me to jump from fundamental biological science into space research. This was a fantastic time! But being a foreign national working for a big USA government agency does not come without its challenges. Very quickly, I got irritated with the bureaucracy and one day an EMBL alumni right down the hallway from my office at NASA told me that I should check out the EMBL webpage. I did and found an open position to work in electron microscopy. I applied, got the position, and I found myself moving across the ocean with only two suitcases and a bucket of fear.

I spent three and a half years at EMBL doing a very challenging project looking at the detailed ultrastructure of the mitotic spindle. This was scientifically quite an interesting project, but the real challenge was the technical development. We spent most of the time troubleshooting. Although frustrating from a biological standpoint and a publication standpoint, it was a perfect training ground for what I am doing now because I really had to learn how to implement new protocols, troubleshoot techniques, and Macgyver solutions. I also did what many of us do at that age, I met my partner so I moved from a one-body problem to a two-body problem. While we were both looking for our next steps, this opportunity in Portugal came up. Now seven years later I am still running a core facility and causing trouble, as is totally expected by those that know me!

My career path might seem like a very random path but the underlying thread was my curiosity. By following opportunities that got me excited, somehow they all connected together to be this seemingly random yet fulfilling career path.

What did motivate you to become a postdoc after your PhD?
I think that what I was doing was following the path that everyone does. You know, you finish a PhD, and the next natural option is you do a postdoc.

However, the fact that I had the option to do a postdoc at NASA was too good to miss. You could not have stopped me if you wanted. I was really interested in the project and the work, so it was heaven for me. This may be a bad thing to admit, but I was not doing it from a career standpoint. I was doing it purely because I was fascinated with the science they were doing and I thought it would be super cool to be part of it. It was NASA – do I really need to explain why I went?

How and when did you become interested in a career in a core facility?
Again, I never planned to work in a core facility, but little by little I realised that I am much more suited for this career path. As I was troubleshooting throughout my experiments at EMBL Heidelberg, I realised that what I was doing was very similar to what the core facility teams were doing, and I really liked it. When the opportunity to build a core facility came up, I thought that I could do it and do it well. I could take all the good things I had learned at EMBL and other electron microscopy laboratories, and try to correct all the things I had not liked. I had the opportunity to make the facility the way I thought it should be. Of course, I made my own set of mistakes, but many other things went very well.

What excites you the most about your position?
What I really love about working in a core facility is that I never know what is coming next. I never know what project will be put in front of me and I never know what questions people will have. It is always interesting, and it is always exciting. And it is always a challenge because someone brings you a question and you have to figure out how to help them to address it. Overall, there is always something new to learn and interesting to try. No single day in a core facility is the same as the last day. I like the diversity; I like the creativity and I like the opportunity to MacGyver technical solutions.

I also have to admit that it has an element of stress, but it is slightly different than when you are a PhD or a postdoc. If it is your project and it fails, you feel the knife to the heart. And as much as I do not want to say that facility staff do not feel the knife to the heart, we have one step of distance from some of these projects. This gives us the opportunity to look at the science with perhaps a bit of a more critical eye; we see things not from an emotional standpoint, but really more from a scientific standpoint. We have not invested five years in a project, we have only invested five months. When things fail you still feel it, but it is less painful and sometimes this makes it easier to find a solution.

Another thing that excites me is that I do not need to deal with grant applications. I support grants, I support authorship, I help people with these tasks all the time, but I do not have to sit down and muddle through it on my own the same way scientists do. There are some really great advantages about working in a facility!

What are the main responsibilities that your position entail?
That depends on the facility you work in and it obviously will also depend on the seniority level that you are at. But pretty much if you can think of it, facility staff do it. I am the engineer that does the first line service on microscopes. I am the accountant that figures out all the pricing and does all the billing. I am the website designer that updates all of our websites. I am the manager of my team and the leader of projects. I am the negotiator for new budgets, service contracts, acquisition of new microscopes – I am constantly dealing with companies, so I end up being a diplomat, the good cop and the bad cop. I am also the tour guide for visitors coming through the facility, so you have to be able to explain the facility to all ages and backgrounds and make it understandable. I teach classes, train users and technical staff and give talks at international conferences. And I do this on top of the regular science. So to answer your question what do we do in a facility, the answer is everything!

Which are some of the downsides of these positions?
Fundamentally, the biggest problem is that many people in the academic environment see a service facility as an exit from science. There is a certain percentage of scientists who see working at a core facility as a failure and there is a bit of a hierarchy which at times gets irritating and discouraging. Those people consider you “just” a facility head or technician, not a person doing real science. This is disappointing because we do not work with one single technique, we have to be experts in every kind of electron microscopy! In fact, I strongly believe the people that work in the core facilities may have an even broader technical understanding of these applications than a person who uses our service once every six months.

This is the biggest downside. However, this academic mentality is slowly evolving. Now there is more and more recognition of the fundamental role that facilities do play in science, especially as we start doing more full-service techniques. I hope and I am working to push that this continues to improve and facility staff are seen as “real” scientists.

Which are the main skills that someone interviewing for a position in a core facility should show?
One of the biggest skills you have to have in a facility is the ability to say no. And the reason for this is that in a facility, I think at times, it is forgotten that staff have to actually sleep and go home, that you cannot do everything simultaneously. If we try and do too many things at the same time, we can actually compromise the quality of all of our work. Planning, prioritizing and being able to say no to “surprise” experiments is crucial!

Moreover, you need to be methodical, and you need to structure your documentation very well. When you are in a facility, you are passing on your protocols, and you are trying to share a methodology with someone who might not be an expert. It is extremely important that you have a very good and very clear way to communicate. Becoming obsessive in your documentation efforts helps because it is amazing how small details can be at the heart of an experiment. If you do not document them, you will forget these details when you run 20 experiments in the facility at the same time and you are juggling many protocols. If you do electron microscopy well, you should not be doing the same protocol for every project. Each experimental protocol should be built around the scientific question, not just a cookie-cutter approach.

When I hire a new team member, I look for organisation, communication and the ability to say no beyond the technical background of an applicant. Indeed, the two team members I just hired actually have very limited background in electron microscopy but they are great team players.

Are positions at a core facility different if you have a PhD or postdoc experience?
I would say that postdoc experience helps. What I see more and more is that facilities are looking for PhD level applicants, maybe even postdoc level applicants. This is because for many facilities, like light microscopy, you really need the technical knowledge base and the scientific experience to excel in facility work.

However, in some facilities, like perhaps histology or genomics and to a certain degree electron microscopy, a lot of this can be learned in the position. In these examples the technical staff often have advanced undergraduates or master’s degrees. So my unhelpful answer to the question “do you need a PhD / postdoc to work in a facility” is that it will depend on the hiring approach of the institute and the nature of the facility.

Is there a particular place where these positions are advertised?
Yes, but depending on the demographic recruiters are looking for, positions will be advertised differently. If the position is not advertised to an international community, that may be for language or salary reasons. In that case, the position will only be advertised on the institute’s website or within the local community.

If it is really an open international call, the positions are typically advertised in the institute’s website but may also be announced on community list servers. If you join those community lists, you will constantly see jobs being posted. That is nice because they are very specific for the technique and the service. If any EMBL PhD or postdoc is considering a career in a core facility, the very first thing you should do is join the community list servers in the areas you are interested in – and if you do not know if list servers exists – go ask the facility at your home institute.

What advice would you give to early career researcher interested in working at a core facility?
I would say that if you are someone who likes working on different kinds of projects, likes different challenges and likes working with different kinds of people, a core facility is a great place. However, if you are a person that wants your name on every single publication for every technique you touch, you will suffer in a core facility because it is a place where we do not always get credit for what we do. These jobs are all about supporting the research of others so the hardest part is when you have really put a lot of time and effort into it and then a different person gets up and presents the work as if it is all theirs, and they have done it all. I see this a lot with my technicians because they have probably done about three PhDs in the course of the time they have been here. They are constantly supporting PhD students, designing projects, doing data collection, sample processing, and yet they still get the “you’re just a technician” attitude. So my advice is – if you like working on a huge array of different projects, meeting different people, learning about different biological question and you do not always need credit for your work, then you can do very well in a core facility. If the credit is essential for you, you will not last that long because although you may enjoy the work, it is discouraging when your work is attributed to someone else who has not even done it and can hardly explain it.

And finally, is there anything else we did not cover and that you would like to mention?
I really love working in a core facility. It really gives me a lot of opportunities to be creative from the technical point of view and work on different scientific projects and research areas. We are always learning new stuff and that is cool! This is a great environment in which we can do exciting and interesting science.

The last point, which may be specific to the electron microscopy community, is that the international electron microscopy community is like a family. People work together, and the comradery, the friendships and the collaborative attitude are something I value immensely. Working in a facility does not mean working alone – it means joining a huge international network of like-minded colleagues that are all actively and enthusiastically working to support a huge diversity of science. It is really a lot of fun!


Erin can be contacted by email at etranfield@igc.gulbenkian.pt, on LinkedIn, on Twitter or via the EMBL Alumni Directory.

EMBL staff / fellows can search and contact other alumni to seek career advice / informal mentoring via the EMBL Alumni Directory. Please see our article on informational interviews for ideas on how to make the most of such opportunities.