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Michelle Ocana, Microscopist

By December 13, 2018June 10th, 2020No Comments

Live Event: December 13, 2018 at 1:00pm Eastern (US)

Michelle Ocana is the Managing Director of the Harvard Medical School Neurobiology Imaging Facility where she uses cutting edge imaging technology and techniques for a broad range of scientific research to help visualize experiments.

About Michelle

Name: Michelle Ocana
Title: Managing Director, Neurobiology Imaging Facility
Layman’s Title: Microscopist, Imaging specialist
Company: Harvard Medical School

Years in this organization/position?

15 years

What does your organization do?

Basic biological research

What is your role in the organization?

Director of a service center

Describe your work and how it is important to society:

Our lab provides expensive equipment and difficult techniques to to a broad scientific base. Other research labs may not have the money to purchase a sophisticated piece of imaging equipment or they may not have the space or technical skill to run it. We will purchase the equipment and provide it to researchers. This would be systems such as confocal microscopes, whole slide scanning and lightsheet microscopes. We find funding (acquire grants or find philanthropic donors) to purchase a turn key system, learn how to use it and then teach our collaborators how to best use it to answer the questions they may have about their samples. We also build emerging technology. The equipment is not something that is commercially available we will build it to meet the needs of the researcher. We have built a STORM super resolution microscope that can resolve single proteins down to 40nm and are building a MPE microscope that can image up to 4 mm into tissue with a resolution of .5um.

In the case of technique, labs may not have the time or resources to learn a complicated technique that they may need to find the answer to their question. My group will research the application, learn the technique, become proficient and offer to run the experiments for other research labs. Tissue clearing, Array tomography, ISH are examples of this kind of collaboration. These techniques help researchers visualize their experiments on a super resolution scale (less than 200nm) or on a macro scale (up to 8mm).

What type of science, technology, engineering or math do you use in your career? And how often do you use them?

Working with light requires math. Developing new techniques or new imaging systems requires engineering and more math. Learning about optics is really learning about geometry. Basically everything is math but the math is applied and you can see the results as quickly as you can shine a light through it so it’s not that hard. I hated math as a student. I struggled to find the sense in bizarre word problems that usually had something to do with Mary and her apples or John looking at a triangle. I spent my entire education believing that math was hard and I was bad at it. It’s still hard sometimes but it’s definitely easier than classroom math and I’m not so bad now that I can apply it to something in real life.

What accomplishments are you most proud of in your current role?

I grew up pretty underprivileged and education was not a priority for my family. It was a struggle to get an education and a greater one to become the director of this (very big) lab. I built this whole lab. I negotiated with Olympus to start it with a loan of their equipment. I plan, organize, perform outreach to bring in more users. I am sitting in an office at Harvard Medical School running a lab that I created from nothing. Every piece of equipment, every reagent, every beaker and flask is here because I made it happen. I think my greatest accomplishments are yet to come. I have a vision of outreach and development that will provide researcher with more tools to answer the hard questions.

What projects or goals are you currently pursuing?

We are starting an In Situ Hybridization core service at the moment. This technique allows researchers to determine what genes are doing in a organism by looking for specific mRNA sequences.
If you can determine the presence of mRNA that codes for a particular protein you can detect how many mRNA is present at a different time within a cell. This will show an expression pattern within a cell or organ. The expression pattern of proteins within an organ at a particular time can show the researcher a lot about the development of an organ or disease.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

Staying ahead of the technology. Whether it is optical systems, protocols or techniques there is constant learning and a absolute need to stay current on all applications.