Training in The Flow Cytometry Industry: An Interview with Derek Davies

Training in flow cytometry an interview with Derek Davies

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Derek Davies is a pioneer in the field of Flow Cytometry with a wealth of experience in teaching, training and working in flow cytometry. He has been collaborating with Applied Cytometry to fill the gaps we perceived in educational needs for learners. You can find out more about the content of his training here.

So how long have you been working/training in the industry?

Well, I’ve been in cytometry since 1980. So, I saw my first cytometer on my second day of work in August 1980, it wasn’t a flow cytometer but it was making measurements on individual cells and I got into flow cytometry in 1985. So, it was a much quicker way of doing what we wanted to do, look at DNA content in cells.

What attracted you to Flow Cytometry?

I suppose the fact what we were doing was looking at the DNA content in cervical smears. To do it by a microdensitometer, which is a static cytometer, took maybe 2 hours to measure 100 cells. Then a colleague and I developed a collaboration with a medic who worked at King’s College Hospital in London who had a flow cytometer.

And he said, “Hey, we could do that,” and suddenly we could measure 2-3000 cells per second, rather than one hundred in a couple of hours. So that sort of transformed the number of samples that could be run and I ended up moving to King’s College Hospital on an MRC funded project to see whether we can automate the cervical screening program by just looking at DNA content in cells in suspension, which didn’t actually work out that well.

I feel like there’s a story there for another time.

So foundational knowledge, what would you say you need?

I suppose from a flow cytometrist’s point of view, you need a bit of everything. You should understand a little bit about physics and chemistry. To help people, you need to understand things about their biology. There’s a bit of mathematics involved. So, actually a lot of different skills are needed to be able to run a flow cytometer, especially in a core facility because you have a huge variety of different people with huge variety of biological questions.

How long have you been instructing in Flow Cytometry?

Anybody who works in a core starts as soon as they work in that core. So, I’ve been teaching for 30 odd years, but formally, I suppose for the last maybe 15 years.

Within the flow cytometry community, you’re probably aware, there’s a flow cytometry section of the Royal Microscopical Society which was formed in 1839. The Flow Cytometry section was formed in 1988 and that has always held courses in flow cytometry so I’ve been involved with those since it became a bit more formalised; giving talks, helping people understand what a flow cytometer does etc.

So, what made you set up your own courses?

Actually, setting up my own courses was something I did when I was working Just before we became the Crick Institute in 2015 RMS | The Francis Crick Institute – Flow Cytometry Scientific Technology Platform.  Part of the remit of my job when I was running the core facility was to train people internally. We had a whole training regime for people and then they’d have 1 to 1 training and hand holding for a little while, until they become self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency in flow cytometry is a great transferable skill.

There are flow cytometers everywhere and being self-sufficient means trainees can use the lab whenever they want and they’re not looking for help to run their samples.

It may seem obvious, but training is extremely important. With all types of complex equipment and this is the advantage of having a core facility or a centralised facility. People must be trained and have an understanding of how the equipment works and the pros and cons, the strengths and weaknesses.

That’s not always immediately obvious, even for the manufacturers. They train people, but they want them to just get going and they don’t necessarily get end users to understand the details and all the subtleties, if you like, of a piece of equipment, and that’s where the core facilities come in. I have an expertise that we can provide to the end users.

Do you enjoy teaching and training?

Absolutely!

Why are you so passionate about it?

I understand the material and, basically, I want to get that information to as many people as possible. I want to make sure that they’re using the equipment to its maximum capabilities. I want to make sure that they understand the results they’re getting and what they mean so that they can make good interpretations of it.

Some of the pleasure I get from it, especially when I was running the lab, is to see people coming in who have no idea about flow cytometry and at the end of their PHD they’re designing really complex experiments, analysing them and then publishing that data. I like the idea that I’ve contributed to that growth.

I also got to work with a whole variety of people from different backgrounds, work places and all with different questions to answer. The main benefit of having a live teacher, who you can actually converse with, is that I can just keep answering the inevitable questions. This is especially important when working globally with different people with access to different learning resources.

Yeah, I found it’s been interesting being able to reach out to so many different people, you must have found that too especially after teaching locally for so long?

Well that’s part of the reason we set up these courses with Applied Cytometry is that we know there’s a need for this globally. Especially since flow cytometry is a big, big business, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. So there are people coming into the field all the time and they always need the basics and to gain those connections that will enable them to find the industry tools and learning resources they need to keep going.

I definitely want to encourage people to keep coming back, not just for lessons but to ask questions and keep me up to date on what they’re doing.

What other applications are there for learning flow cytometry?

Flow cytometry has a huge breadth of different applications so if you understand how a flow cytometer works you open yourself up to a range of possibilities. So you may be working in cancer research or you may be in a more ecological area, on a boat looking at plankton in the sea using a flow cytometer. Flow cytometry is also very big in the brewing and wine industry, mainly to measure the quality of yeast. They have their own flow cytometers at the Scottish whisky Society. So the applications are extremely broad and it’s extremely versatile.

So many small biotech companies will have flow cytometers but won’t have one specific person to run them and these courses in particular help those who don’t necessarily have access to an academic flow cytometry core but still want to get the most out of their equipment.

So how could people best prepare themselves going into the course?

Well, quite often I send people to some of the manufacturer’s websites because some of them have good tutorials. They also have their limitations, particularly to specific machines but they are quite useful to get a little bit of an understanding before you attend.

Useful websites for introductory training:

https://www.thermofisher.com/uk/en/home/life-science/cell-analysis/cell-analysis-learning-center/molecular-probes-school-of-fluorescence/flow-cytometry-basics.html

https://www.bio-rad-antibodies.com/introduction-to-flow-cytometry.html

https://www.bdbiosciences.com/en-us/learn/training/basic/flow-cytometry-introduction

https://www.mybeckman.uk/resources/technologies/flow-cytometry-basics

https://www.miltenyibiotec.com/GB-en/resources/macs-handbook/macs-technologies/flow-cytometry/flow-cytometry-basics.html

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