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Smooth Operator

July 9, 2010

Providing expert and efficient service is all in a day's work for this core facility manager

By Alisa Kim

It’s a career she “fell into,” but looking back, Gisele Knowles has no regrets.

“I made the right decision. I ended up in a niche that’s very rare and became a specialist in a technical services field,” says Knowles, who manages the Centre for Cytometry and Scanning Microscopy at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI).

Do you have what it takes to be a core facility manager?

Minimum education required: bachelor of science.

Training: experience working in a medical research lab and familiarity with related equipment, including cell sorters, microscopes, gene sequencers, tissue processors and microarray scanners.

Job description: working with facility users to provide technical services required for specific research aims; running training courses; managing staff; creating budgets; stocking supplies; writing service contracts and liaising with equipment manufacturers.

In the late 1980s Knowles was a master’s student in forensic anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her supervisor had acquired a cell sorter—cutting-edge equipment with which few people were familiar at the time—and needed someone to run it.

“We were the first owners of this machine in Canada,” she recalls. “By having to spend a lot of time learning how to use it, I ended up running a mini core facility there because the technology became very popular very quickly.”

Prior to her recruitment to SRI in 2001 to establish the centre, Knowles operated cell sorters for immunology researchers at SickKids Hospital for eight years. With 17 years of experience running a core facility, she has her work down to, well, a science.

Her typical workday—which is “very structured,” says Knowles—consists of a series of appointments made by users of the facility, most of whom are from SRI. She determines ahead of time the type of research users are doing, what their needs are, as well as the machinery that will be used and any special setup that’s required.

“It takes years of experience to maintain smooth operations at the facility, and to ensure that the user’s end product is perfect and their time is well-managed. That’s why I prescribe the appointment—what’s going to happen with the cells, and what do the users want to do with them? I get all that information in advance so that appointments won’t conflict with each other,” she says.

Top-of-the-Line Equipment; First-Rate Service

The facility at SRI houses two digital multilaser, multiapplication, high-velocity cell sorters. Knowles and her assistant run the sorters, which enable researchers to analyze biological material by detecting the light-absorbing and light-emitting properties of cells that are tagged with a fluorescent dye and passed through a laser beam. The service provides researchers with purified cells that can be used in cell culture, preclinical models and humans.

In addition to cell sorting, Knowles trains people to use smaller benchtop cell analyzers and provides technical assistance to users of the centre, many of whom have gone on to careers in core facility management at U of T and other research and teaching hospitals in downtown Toronto. Then there’s her administrative duties: creating budgets, billing clients for services, ordering supplies, negotiating contracts, and liaising with equipment manufacturers to stay abreast of current technology.

Her work is mentally draining—“at the end of the day I’m exhausted because I’m constantly thinking and monitoring”—but Knowles says she finds her work fascinating. “This technology absolutely rocks. You can give people back subsets of cells that are so rare, and so small [in number], but those cells are so powerful in what they can do—repopulating hematopoietic systems or whole animals. It’s a question of applications, but the service is so integral to all other research going forward, and it’s wonderful to be part of it.”

The Centre for Cytometry and Scanning Microscopy received infrastructure support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ministry of Research and Innovation.