Tharshana Stephen from the VIB Flow Core Leuven takes the stage

An interview in honor of the International day for Women and Girls in Science

Hello Tharshana,

Thank you very much for taking some time for us. People might know you from your role as a Flow cytometry expert in the VIB Flow Core in Leuven, but before diving into this, could you give us an overview of the career path that led to your position at VIB?

Sure, thank you for inviting me! My passion already started in Primary school, where I was deeply fascinated by a French TV show called “C’est pas sorcier” (it’s not rocket science). In this kid’s show, they explored various scientific phenomena. Since then, I’ve been interested in science. During my master’s internships in genetics in the UK and the USA, I came in contact with technologies in science. Seeing how new technologies arise and push research forward fascinated me. To discover and learn more, I subscribed for a master's in core facility management.

This led to an internship at the Flow Cytometry at the François Jacob Institute of Biology/CEA in France. It was the first Flow cytometry Core in Europe with a mass cytometer! To be at the forefront of this new technology and discover the possibilities only increased my enthusiasm. I continued to work in this field as a flow cytometry expert in a CEA laboratory.

afterwards, I was able to start at the famous Institut Pasteur in Paris. I used my expertise in technologies to help students, engineers, and scientists by supporting them from experimental design to data analysis and interpretation. I also organized seminars to promote technologies

In 2022, when the Core for Life meeting was held at the Institut Pasteur, I got in contact with Gert Van Isterdael (Head of the VIB Flow Core in Ghent). When I moved to Belgium, I sent him a spontaneous application. I had an interview with Geert Van Minnebruggen (Head of VIB Technologies) and Saskia Lippens (Deputy of VIB Technologies). They suggested I join the VIB Flow Core in Leuven.

Indeed, the VIB Flow Core in Leuven was only initiated in 2023. You were really joining at the start. How did your previous work experience help you tackle the challenges of starting a new core?

At the start of the VIB Flow Core Leuven, this was just a one-person core with Jochen Lamote who managed the core and took care of all day-to-day operations. With the arrival of my colleague Gonzalo Delgado Martinez and me, we had to start working as a team. The challenge was to implement a dynamic workflow, an operational model to work together, and support the user with standard operating procedures (SOP), training, project discussions, etc.

I could rely on my experiences at CEA and at Institut Pasteur. These core facilities are long-established and have extensive experience in operations, benchmarking, training, SOP, etc. It was useful to bring this experience to help start the VIB Flow core in Leuven, but it was a real team effort!

How do you support scientists in your current role? With which questions can they contact you?

Through the ‘connect’ platform, users can reach out to us. Most requests fall under two categories. On one hand, researchers have specific questions. This can be a request to discuss their experimental setup, design their flow cytometry panel, support with data analysis, or sort their tricky favorite cells (laughs). In these cases, we help through our expertise. Besides this practical help, we also provide input and guidance in their research.

We also often get questions from new users looking for training. When they want to learn more about the technologies at the Flow Core and how to use them, we provide theoretical training. If they want to be autonomous and work with the technologies themselves, we provide practical training.

Do you collaborate with the Flow Core in Gent or other VIB cores around Flanders, and how? Can you share some insights on the impact for the facility?

Yes, for sure! The Metabolomics and Single Cell Cores are our neighbors and an extension of our team (laughs). For some broader research questions, we might need a collaboration between cores. In those cases we reach out, discuss a research strategy and workflow between our different groups, and keep each other updated so we can adapt when necessary. This is a two-way street. Other Cores also contact us when they need help with a broader scientific challenge.

There is also a Flow Core in Ghent. With them, we have a close collaboration. This core has existed for longer than the sister in Leuven and is running smoothly. They have a nice workflow we can learn from. This way, we can align our workflows to be similar across VIB.

Tharshana Stephen at the VIB Flow Core in Leuven
Tharshana Stephen at the VIB Flow Core in Leuven

What do you like most about working at the VIB Flow Core, or VIB Technologies in general?

We work well together in our small, complementary team. Also, the colleagues from Ghent are great. They are helpful and share their expertise. It is a very nice environment to work in. I also want to add that VIB Technologies puts a lot of effort into the well-being of their employees.

Besides the team, the general atmosphere of VIB technologies is great. We are really investing in technologies and innovation. Again, I have the feeling of being at the forefront of technology with the acquisition of a cell sorter with real-time imaging technology.

Maybe this is a good time to mention we are recruiting a new technician, so people who are interested should definitely apply (laughs).

In light of ‘International Day of Women and Girls in Science,’ do you have a special message for young girls worldwide who are thinking about a career in science or technology?

There is the cliché that technology is a man’s field, which is not true. The people working at VIB Technologies are around 50% women; this was the same case at the Institut Pasteur. Women have roles to play in science and technology, and I’m happy that this diversity translates to the work field.

So, what I actually want to say to all the young girls is, GO FOR IT! If you are interested in science and technology, you can achieve beautiful things. If you are passionate about what you do, the field of science is ready to welcome you with open arms.


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Steve Bers

Steve Bers

Science Communications Expert, VIB

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