Dr. Elaine Humphrey

UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Dr. Elaine Humphrey is currently the laboratory manager at the Advanced Microscopy Facility at the University of Victoria. Elaine has been recognised as a fellow of the Microscopy Society of America in 2018 for her contributions to the advancement of the field of microscopy and micro-analysis over the past 34 years. Elaine’s work on microscopy has reached beyond the scientific community. The wildly popular science-fiction television show, “The X-Files”, featured her bug images in the series. Five children’s books also include her stereo SEM images. She had a small feature on @Discovery Canada on Discovery Channel for two years called Small Wonders.

Elaine receiving the award as a Fellow of the Microscopy Society of America, August 2018 .

Elaine receiving the award as a Fellow of the Microscopy Society of America, August 2018 .

How did you get to the position you are in today? I grew up in a tiny village in North Wales, UK, with an English father and a Scottish mother. Both my parents left school early. My father encouraged me to go to University. In my world no one went to University. He also gave me a love of the sea, so at age 14, I decided I wanted to become a marine biologist. Once I found what subjects I needed to take in order to be accepted to University, those marks went up. Motivation is a wonderful thing.

However, motivations change. I met my husband while at University and we got married. About one year before I graduated, he got a job 200 miles away. So, we had limited time together in that first year. I graduated with a mediocre first degree in marine biology with zoology. 

I went into teaching biology at a private girls school in Surrey, UK. It was a great learning experience and I enjoyed it. Then I had my two children and while they were very young, I taught evening classes in natural history and navigation for yachtsmen.

When my two boys were in elementary school, I was invited to teach biology at the local comprehensive high school. It was there I decided that this was not the environment I wanted my boys to go into. I needed a Master’s degree to be able to afford to send them to a school of my choosing. At Southampton University there was a one-year MSc program in oceanography. It was a very intensive program. My dad came to help take the boys to school and pick them up. Again, motivation is a wonderful thing and I did well enough to do a PhD.

I loved the research part of the program and really wanted to do a PhD but not at the expense of home life. So, I went part time, which meant I dropped the boys at school, was in the lab 9 am to 3 pm, then picked them up from school. Then my husband got a job in Canada. We sold the house, and the boys and I lived on our 36-foot sailboat while I finished my practical work before joining him in North Vancouver. I do not recommend changing countries to write up a thesis. It takes twice as long and too many distractions with finding a school and a house. But eventually I was awarded a PhD which lead to working in Electron Microscopy.

My PhD gave me the opportunity to take up the most exciting job in the world. Better than any drug.

 How did you end up doing microscopy? My PhD was in Oceanography. I got totally sucked into electron microscopy when I investigated the accessory boring organ of a snail that bores holes in oysters. The gland has the most spectacular mitochondria amongst other organelles. Marine biology is cool, but electron microscopy is awesome. When you can put the two together, it is the best! My PhD gave me the opportunity to take up the most exciting job in the world. Better than any drug.  I was fortunate to have access to an electron microscope facility at the general hospital in Southampton. They had a whole suite of rooms for preparation, two TEMs, and an SEM. There were four technicians who decided I was worth training. They were welcoming, helpful, and built up my confidence. Since this is how I wanted to be treated, I hope our students now feel as welcome in the lab here at UVic.


What do you enjoy about this field and your work? The wonderful thing about working in a microscopy lab is that you get to meet researchers from just about every field and help them get their images. This means you gain experience with many different types of preparation and imaging techniques. My first job was working in the Bioimaging Facility at UBC. When I took over the facility there was aging equipment and no budget to hire an assistant. Over the next 12 years as lab manager, I learned how to write grants. I brought in just over $4 million and built a world class facility with state-of-the-art equipment. When I left, we had about 900 users a year, four full time technicians and a part time office person (worth her weight in gold).

Have you experienced any discrimination during your career? In my undergraduate days, the lecture rooms were mostly filled with men. But I have rarely found gender to be an issue until I took over as lab manager at UBC. It was generally males from developing countries who came into the lab looking for “the man” in charge. They did not want to talk to me. My job was not to make them forget I was female but make them recognise me as a person who could help them get their research to the next level. Once there was an attitude adjustment, we never had a problem after that.

My job was not to make them forget I was female but make them recognise me as a person who could help them get their research to the next level.

 I love working in a University where ethnicity does not play any part except to embrace the difference and provide me with a look into other people’s beliefs and culture without travelling anywhere. Life at a University allows different ethnic groups to either embrace Canada’s beliefs or totally reject them. I don’t think I’ve seen the latter. UVic is still small enough to actually get to know your neighbour.

Is there anything that you’re still hoping to accomplish? My future goals are to get more science into schools, especially middle schools. When the demographics were worked out, most students lose interest in the sciences in middle school. This is not so surprising since 95% of elementary and middle school teachers come from the arts program and need a little more mentoring with the science curriculum. Microscopy is a wonderful tool since the result is an image. Motivating the teachers to have fun with science, and to give them the confidence they need is not difficult when you start by dealing with microscopes.

Can you share with us the electron microscopy tools available at UVic? What is the most interesting project you have worked on and why? Every new project that comes my way is an adventure into the unknown. The result of an electron microscope is an image. The image may have been seen by someone else but when it is the first time you look at, say the heavily sculptured hairs on the foot of a tiger beetle, it is awesome. This lab is open to any researcher. One moment I can be talking to someone about a heart, or liver, lungs, red tide, sharks, bacteria, viruses and these days mostly materials – for cell phones, solar panels, concrete, paint pigments etc. The weirdest material I have worked with is aerogel. It is 98% air so is difficult to see. It looks like jelly, but when you take a razor blade to it, it shatters. It is made of 5-10 nm particles of silicon dioxide, so it behaves more like glass. In the scanning electron microscope, when the beam hits it, it swells up then collapses like it’s breathing. It is a huge insulator. NASA used it to collect comet dust, but we looked at it before it went to a synchrotron facility. If you hit it with muons (heavy electrons) you get muonium out.

Every new project that comes my way is an adventure into the unknown.

Now that electron microscopes can analyse samples, material researchers can get a lot more information out of their specimens than just an image. X-ray analysis, holography, and EELS (electron energy loss) are all possible on the big STEHM microscope here at UVic. We have bragging rights at UVic because we have one of the highest resolution microscopes in the world. But when you’ve seen one atom, you’ve seen them all. When you can use elemental analysis, you can colour code the atoms to see how they fit together. This microscope allows new technologies to come our way. Electron vortex beams means we could make atomic motors.

Elaine teaching 88 persons in an Outreach Program for kids and adults in Baltimore on how to assemble an origami microscope called the Foldscope (2018).

Elaine teaching 88 persons in an Outreach Program for kids and adults in Baltimore on how to assemble an origami microscope called the Foldscope (2018).

When have you felt immensely proud of your work and why? Every time I sit with a researcher who sees their sample for the first time and goes “wow” and takes their own publishable image, I feel proud that they learned the technique and can work independently of me. Since I get a thrill when I produce my own publishable images and know they are good, I can see that reflected in my users when they do as well. When I take a tour group through the lab and show them what we have down here, and they leave with a sense of wonder, I feel proud of what we have accomplished here. It is a team effort.

How did grad school prepare you for a career as a lab manager? Can you point out specific skills you learned in grad school that helped you in your current job? I was lucky enough in grad school to have the best mentor. Chris Inman at the Electron Microscopy Facility at the General Hospital in Southampton trained me. He and three co-workers were welcoming and made it easy to work there. I have been in a lab where the lab manager was not welcoming, did not make it easy and it was like hitting a brick wall. So, after that when I went to the General Hospital’s EM Lab, it was like night and day. That gave me a sense of what I want in a lab – to make it as welcoming and easy as possible to work there.

Efficiency is important but not everything.

 Only 1 in 7 PhD graduates end up in academic careers. As someone who took up such a challenging path, what do you think needs to be done at universities to encourage PhD students towards non-academic careers that still have research components? Hmm when is a research position not academic? I just lucked into my positions. I have never applied for any job as I have been invited to all of them. As managers retire from the Baby Boom era, we lose a lot of information and experience on how to get things done. Mentoring comes to mind. I have found that most university administrators just look at the bottom line and don’t see the human aspects of the job, which gives more value to both the students and faculty, as well as the university’s popularity for being a welcoming and easy place to work. Efficiency is important but not everything.

 What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing science? Find a specialty you want to pursue, then find a mentor or supervisor to take you on. Network, go to conferences (there are often student bursaries to help you) to talk to people in the field you want to go into and find out who would be a good person to mentor you. Most principal investigators love to talk about their work, so it is generally not hard to find out if that is a person who would be good to work for. Michael Smith who won a Nobel Prize at UBC once told us, “If you want a Nobel Prize, go work in a lab with someone who has a Nobel Prize.” He did, and his supervisor did.

In your opinion, what steps need to be taken to increase representation of women in science? Encouragement in elementary but particularly in middle school. Since most elementary and middle school teachers in Canada (95 - 97%) come from arts and humanities programs, many find covering the science curriculum an overwhelming endeavour. As a scientist, going into a school one afternoon for a science program is great, the kids love it, but it doesn’t result in the teachers being more comfortable. The Scientist in Residence Program, where a scientist goes in one morning a week for six weeks, has the same two classes and a theme to work with, is one solution. This results in mentoring the teachers and making them much more comfortable teaching science. In a class of boys and girls, when a question is asked it is usually the boys with their hands up, anxious to answer. Being aware that the girls often hang back but when they can answer successfully, they get a sense of achievement. This should be encouraged. Most kids have made up their mind about science by the time they go into high school, so middle school is where the work needs to be done.

Karen Lithgow