“When I come in in the morning, I know where I'm going to start, but I never know where I'm going to end up,” says Joost Willemse, one of the facility managers at the Institute of Biology Leiden (IBL) at Leiden University. Joost works in the Microscopy Unit and helps researchers at IBL and the numerous other research institutes in the Faculty of Science with their imaging. His goal? To help scientists understand what a microscope can do, what microscope would best suit their needs, and how to analyze their microscopy data.
The Microscopy Unit is one of IBL’s core facilities. These facilities are staffed by expert scientists like Joost who ensure that researchers have access to the latest technology and all the support they need. In the Microscopy Unit there are about 26 different microscopes, from fluorescence microscopes to confocal laser scanning and electron microscopes, which Joost and his colleague Gerda Lamers are responsible for. On quiet days, Joost spends his time writing software for image analysis or conducting research. But most days, he is busy helping researchers get acquainted with the high-end machines, set up their experiments, or troubleshoot.
“When people come to us and say they want to use a certain microscope, the first thing we ask is why. We need to understand what they want to use it for to determine what the best approach is for their specific research question,” explains Joost. He likes it when someone comes to him with a challenge, forcing him to come up with a creative solution that will work for them. He loves to work in an inspiring environment with his colleagues. Together they make the most of the state-of-the-art equipment.
Some of the most challenging requests have been the ones he has given himself. “Because I know more about the details of the techniques, I know more about what’s possible,” he says. Joost has specialized in quantitative microscopy during his PhD and has continued to add to his microscopy knowledge during his postdoc, when he made videos of protein affecting localization of cell division in Streptomyces bacteria. “It took me almost seven years, but eventually we did it,” he says. “It was definitely worth the effort, but it was one of the most challenging things I've ever done, because it took so long to get from the idea to the endpoint.”
At the moment, Joost is doing image analysis for a project on receptor proteins that bacteria use to find food in their environment. The bacteria have a lot of receptors grouped closely together. By using electron microscopy, Joost and his colleagues are able to find the groups of receptors but they’re sometimes challenging to spot in the images. Fortunately, the groups of receptors are symmetrical so Joost has written a plugin filter for the open source image analysis package ImageJ that filters images based on symmetry. The filter allows Joost and his colleagues to quickly find the groups of symmetrical receptors in their images so they can study them. Now he is preparing the manuscript and then the plan is to release the filter for anyone to install and use for free.
Joost has always enjoyed cross-disciplinary work. While his own research is focused on biology now, his PhD was in molecular sciences and he has a strong background in math, physics, chemistry, and programming. Leiden University makes it easy for him to connect with researchers in other fields and participate in projects outside of IBL. “There are just so many creative people here. As soon as you have an idea, you can start talking to somebody who's involved in that and they can give you feedback and help you develop it,” he says. “That's the real advantage of being in the university environment. It doesn't matter whether you're doing physics, biology, or chemistry, there's always a problem, and nobody knows the solution, so you have to figure it out.”
Header image courtesy of Joost Willemse
Joost Willemse is one of the facilities manager at Institute of Biology Leiden. He has a PhD from Wageningen University where he specialized in quantitative microscopy.