A different kind of cool: Meet Gail McConnell

GailMcConnell5527a3d1ef9f7.jpgGail McConnell (@gailmcconnell) is a Professor at University of Strathclyde. Her research background is in photonics and the development of optical instrumentation. Her present research applies this expertise to develop and apply innovative novel optical systems to address fundamental challenges faced in biological imaging. Gail will be standing on one of our soapboxes in Glasgow this Sunday, with a talk entitled “See more clearly: New types of microscope to sharpen the eyes of researchers”


SS: Gail, how did you get to your current position?

GMC: After my PhD I had a job in industry lined up and it fell through. My PhD supervisor offered me three months post-doc salary, which I gladly accepted, even though I had not intended to stay in academia. During that three months, I spent time in both physics (my original department) and the newly-created Centre for Biophotonics. I learned a few things – that being a post-doc wasn’t so bad, that I could develop lasers and apply them for imaging, and that most lasers used for microscopy were not really suitable, or could be improved upon. I applied for and was awarded a fellowship by the Royal Society of Edinburgh to develop new lasers for applications in microscopy. I followed this up with a second fellowship from RCUK, and was promoted to Reader in 2009 and Chair in 2012. During this time I have slowly learned more biology, and the work in my group now concentrates on making the best of our optics knowledge to make whole imaging systems and to consider how we can extract more information from the biological specimens with which we work to understand tissue structure and function.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

GMC: I had an excellent physics teacher at school who made me realise that it was ok to like science. It was a different kind of cool!


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?

GMC: Too many to mention, but the parts of my research that seems to fascinate others most are that I build lasers (which lends itself nicely to comparisons of supervillains) and the images that we take, which are scientifically meaningful but are often also very beautiful.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

GMC: A colleague suggested giving it a go, and I’m always happy to take on a challenge.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?

GMC: Hopeful!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

GMC: The major research funding bodies offer substantial research grants and PhD positions but opportunities for necessary specialist scientific training needed to take full advantage of capital equipment investment – funded by the public purse – are becoming ever fewer.  Better support for technical training would help researchers at all levels, stop skills shortage, and offer better value for research spend.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

GMC: Be open-minded and take every opportunity to learn new skills, even if they are far from your background. You never know when they might be useful!

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