Seeing is believing: using electron microscopy to probe teeny tiny structures

Filed Under: MAFNews

Q&A with Ellen Lavoie, Research Scientist at the Molecular Analysis Facility

Ellen Lavoie

What brought you to the MAF?

I joined the MAF staff back in 2014, almost 6 years ago! Seems like yesterday. I had just moved back to the USA (to my home state of New Hampshire) from Australia where I had been managing sample prep equipment and TEM training at Monash University in Melbourne area. I saw a great opportunity to come out to Seattle and work in an up and coming microscopy facility and poof! Here I am! I was thrilled about the idea of being part of a growing facility.  

What is your role at the MAF?

As a staff scientist here, I spend most of my day managing our TEM (transmission electron microscope) equipment and training people how to use them and/or prepare samples. A broad spectrum of samples come through the MAF so I have to know a little bit about everything from amyloplasts (starch storage grains in some plants) to zeolites (soft rock like material). It’s fun! 

What is your background? How did you become a TEM expert?

I studied plant cell biology, but over the years I’ve worked with lots of different materials, biological, and polymer samples. During my first summer as a full-time undergraduate student, I acquired a work study job in the lab of Wayne Fagerberg, a professor in plant biology at the University of New Hampshire. As it turned out, Wayne's research revolved around electron microscopy. At the time, I was the only student in his lab, so I had ample opportunity to learn and thrive. After Wayne broke his right wrist (you can’t load a TEM sample without your left hand!), I had to take on more responsibility. The rest is history really, as I fell in love with the preparation techniques and imaging on the TEM. I worked in his lab for all four years of undergrad and continued working with him afterwards for my master's thesis. Working in Wayne's lab starting in 1999 had a huge influence on my career in science. 

TEM image of a single gold nanoparticle.
TEM image of a cellular structure of a blade (leaf-like) from a tropical seaweed Caulerpa.

What in your opinion makes the MAF unique?

Although a small-ish center compared to some of the “big dogs” out there, the MAF offers a broad array of analysis equipment to meet the needs of a great variety of research labs. Moreover, the MAF has some really one-of-a-kind equipment not offered publicly elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. For example, our TEM has liquid/heating in situ and tomography capabilities, we have one of the newest, highest resolution SEMs and we offer biophysics tools not often found in characterization facilities.

What is your favorite thing about working at the MAF?

First and foremost, great leadership from our director and great camaraderie between staff. I also really enjoy the fact that because the facility continues to acquire new and improved equipment, there are many opportunities to learn about new techniques and tools.

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