Meet the new Heads of the VIB BioImaging Core: Erin Tranfield and Pablo Hernández Varas

The VIB BioImaging Core is entering an exciting new phase to advance the bioimaging support within VIB. In March, Erin Tranfield started as Head of the VIB BioImaging Core Ghent, and Pablo Hernández Varas took the lead of the VIB BioImaging Core Leuven in May. Sounds like the perfect time for an interview in which we get to know them and their vision.

Hi Erin, hi Pablo. Let's dive right in. How did you end up pursuing a career in bioimaging?

Erin: "I have loved taking pictures for as long as I can remember, and I fell in love with the natural world growing up on a farm in a rural part of Canada. Bioimaging combines these two things – taking pictures of biological processes and seeing what only a few people have ever seen. I also love the challenge of sample preservation for imaging. It is not as simple as one may think to preserve a sample without introducing artifacts that will impact the scientific validity of the research. I enjoy understanding how best to preserve a sample so we can see and photograph an accurate representation of the natural world."

Pablo: "For me, it followed from research I was doing. My PhD project focused on understanding certain aspects of cancer (melanoma, precisely) biology, and from early on it required quite a lot of widefield and confocal imaging. I simply fell in love with the techniques. So much can be said with just one image! When I joined Karolinska in Stockholm as a postdoc, I decided to embark on a project where imaging featured heavily. This was an exciting time, since super-resolution techniques were in full bloom (the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for Super-resolution microscopy in 2014), and I could meet the experts. Attending the Nobel Laureate Lecture was a privilege, and my fate was sealed.

We are the backbone of technical expertise for complex research projects. ​
​ - Pablo Hernández Varas

Are there any specific imaging technologies you are keen to use or further develop?

Pablo: "Following up on my previous answer, I have learned advanced super-resolution techniques directly from the sources. I truly enjoy doing Structured Illumination Microscopy, which doubles the resolution of a conventional high-performance microscope, and I think STED (stimulated emission depletion) is genius. So simple and so complex at the same time, revealing tiny details of biological structures (as you can see, I love focusing on the tiniest bits). However, when leading a core facility you also focus on what the community needs. I think that our user base would benefit from incorporating light sheet technologies, which employ a laser-based sheet of light (surprise surprise, scientists are not always very creative when naming things) that gently illuminates a single focal plane of the sample. Currently, many clearing protocols could be implemented to visualize a diseased mouse brain in its entirety, for example, using this microscopy technology. This can empower scientists to understand disease onset and progression in these animal models more holistically."

Erin: "I find the potential of Volume Electron Microscopy (vEM), particularly array tomography, quite interesting as there is a lot of potential in this collection of techniques that I would like to explore further. My appreciation for seeing information in the context of its location also pulls me to spatial omics and I am interested to see how I can work with the Spatial Catalyst team at VIB to bring these workflows into common practice."

Do you have plans to collaborate, both between the two BioImaging Cores and with the other Cores?

Erin: "No core facility stands on its own and I really look forward to getting to know all the technology platforms at the VIB and working particularly closely with the BioImaging team in Leuven."

Pablo: "I agree. We are working hard to get a consistent identity across the BioImaging Core as a single Unit, regardless of the site. We share visions and challenges. Also, we are servicing a multidisciplinary community, and as such we are multidisciplinary ourselves. In the near future, we can help identify a cell subpopulation using multiple fluorescent markers in a tissue sample, for example, and then push the sample onto the proteomics, nucleomics, or metabolomics cores in-house, creating cross-core facility pipelines for data generation and analysis. That way, we can address how these identified cell populations differ. As scientists, we are not islands, we need to collaborate, and the same applies to the core facilities at VIB."

Pablo Hernández Varas, Axelle Kerstens, Eef Parthoens, Erin Tranfield and Amanda Gonçalves at the ELMI Meeting in Liverpool June 2024. ​
Pablo Hernández Varas, Axelle Kerstens, Eef Parthoens, Erin Tranfield and Amanda Gonçalves at the ELMI Meeting in Liverpool June 2024. ​

Working in a Core facility is not exactly the same as a traditional academic career. How do you see such a technology-focused career ‘fit’ within the wider research environment?

Erin: "For the 10 years I led the core facility in Portugal, my husband was a PI and it was interesting to see the differences in our working days and career tracks. There are wonderful differences between the academic career track and the core facility track which allows people to pick the best path for their goals and personality. For me, I fit best within a core where I can support the interesting research questions of the academic community by helping them apply the best possible technology to their question." (Curious for more? Check out the recent paper by Erin and Saskia Lippens about this topic!)

Pablo: "Technologists are fundamental for the research environment nowadays. The need to apply multiple advanced protocols for almost every project, and hence the need to use a wide range of cutting-edge devices (not just fancy microscopes, but flow cytometers, mass spectrometers, etc.) means that a single individual cannot gather the expertise to run all the required experiments to answer complex biological questions. This is where technologists come into play. We are scientists too, so we understand the biological question, but we have devoted ourselves to mastering 'solving a piece of the puzzle'. We are the backbone of technical expertise for complex research projects. We are also repositories of knowledge that we transfer to PhD students and others through advice, training, and courses. Since we are not part of the 'classical' career path, it is important to fight for our visibility and for the recognition of our career path within life sciences."

My advice to anyone is to follow the path that excites you and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. I cannot predict the future, but if you follow your passion I predict you will enjoy the work you do and the path you are on.
​ - Erin Tranfield

What does the future of bioimaging look like? Any burgeoning technologies that you think will change the field?

Pablo: "Predicting the future is not easy, so it is hard to know how things will look in a few years. In microscopy, we work with 'the triangle of compromises', meaning we must manage a trade-off between resolution, sensitivity, or speed. New detectors and cameras will be faster and more sensitive across the spectrum, so we will be able to address the biological questions without having to sacrifice as much, capturing faster dynamics in larger samples without disturbing the specimens. Of course, AI will be disruptive, helping us to direct image acquisition in a more targeted, efficient way, but also speeding up and improving our current image analysis capabilities. As a side note, image analysis is a fundamental aspect of our work today and it is often overlooked."

Erin: "I am rubbish at predicting the future, but I hope that the future holds a highly collaborative transdisciplinary community where sample preparation experts, technology experts, AI experts, and data analysis experts come together to build workflows that are faster, more accurate, and more resistant to human error. This will become an accelerator of scientific research allowing us to many previously unapproachable scientific questions."

To get to know the person behind the science, a few rapid-fire questions…

  • Can you recommend a fiction book?

Pablo: "Sure! One of the last fiction books I read and would recommend is 'The Guest Cat', by Takashi Hiraide. The Spanish title for the book is somewhat more poetic, 'The Cat that Arrived from Heaven'. Far from being mystic, it is a very down-to-earth story about how small, unexpected changes can transform someone’s life. And it obviously features cats, which, for me, is definitely a plus."

Erin: "Given my background working for NASA it should be no surprise that I really liked 'The Martian' by Andy Weir. ​ The movie was ok but the book often made me laugh out loud and the science was quite accurate (minus that initial windstorm)."

  • If you were a non-human animal, what would it be?

Erin: "Since my horse-riding accident that led to a spinal cord injury I move quite slowly and I frequently compare myself to a turtle so I suppose that would be my animal. I also quite like the mythical Phoenix as I often feel I have risen from ashes after my accident. It was not clear I would walk again, and although I amble with my own style, I am standing on my own two feet and for that I am proud."

Pablo: "Depends on the time of the day and the amount of caffeine. On a dark early morning before having my double espresso, I am a bit like a grumpy sloth. But when the caffeine kicks in I can be very active, like a meerkat. Attentive, speedy, and social."

  • The best thing about Belgium?

Pablo: "The easy answer would be chocolate and beer, and, for me, the first is more important than the last. I am not here for the weather, that is clear. Getting a bit more serious, the best thing so far is how science is promoted, taken care of, and funded. The research environment is great, and I am happy to contribute to the VIB community."

Erin: "I am not sure I can add to what Pablo said about chocolate and beer. I have moved to Belgium from Portugal, so I am definitely not here for the weather. The science is great, the BIC team in Ghent has been incredibly welcoming and I am happy to be part of a place with such a proactive, can-do approach as the VIB."

  • What's your favorite season?

Erin: "I enjoy all 4 seasons and I missed the northern seasons when I lived in California and Portugal. For me, spring is the season of new growth, the birth of new cute animals, the appearance of the beautiful green colors in the forests. Summer means long days, BBQs with friends, outdoor adventures, and the smell of freshly cut grass. Fall is the season of color that makes it look like an artist has run through the forest and the return of that gentle chill in the evenings. And winter – for this Canadian there is nothing like the sound of falling snow and the sparkle of the sun on fresh white landscapes. I love all seasons and particularly the change between them as you know a new season is always on its way."

Pablo: "When I was a kid it used to be autumn. Summers in Spain can be grueling, and when the rain comes back and it cools down, it is amazing. The smell of the ground when the first rain falls is a memory I cherish. However, since living in Scandinavia for more than 10 years, I am in love with summer. Those never-ending sunsets, beautifully green rolling hills, and a dip into the Baltic Sea are unbeatable. Summer is full of life."

Pablo Hernández Varas and Erin Tranfield
Pablo Hernández Varas and Erin Tranfield

Finally, do you have any advice for young scientists who want to pursue a career in bioimaging or science in general?

Pablo: "Perseverance. Science is not the easiest business, and a bit of resilience is necessary. Experiments may not work and projects may not turn out as expected. But if you hold on and stay curious, the reward can be immense. The moment when you realize that you have solved a biological question and that you are the only person on the planet holding that information in your hands is a pretty unique experience."

Erin: "Follow your passion and your curiosity. Several times in my career, I went in a direction I was told was not the best for me. I did that because I felt the fire of curiosity in my belly. This fire helped me go further than I would have if I had just been there because I was told it was the 'right' thing to do. So my advice to anyone is to follow the path that excites you and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. I cannot predict the future, but if you follow your passion I predict you will enjoy the work you do and the path you are on." ​

Thank you both and welcome to VIB!

If you are curious about the work by Erin, Pablo, and their teams, be sure to check out the website of the VIB BioImaging Core Ghent and Leuven.

The VIB BioImaging Core is one of the institutional Core Facilities under the umbrella of VIB Technologies.

Gunnar De Winter

Gunnar De Winter

Science Communications Expert, VIB


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