A day in the life of imaging scientist Laura Waller


Jhe microscopes in Laura Waller’s lab aren’t the simple light microscopes you used in school to look at pond water or a human hair. In his creations, computers, rather than lenses, do most of the work.

Laura is a rising star in the field of computer imaging. It combines hardware used in microscopes with the kind of software you find in a smartphone, allowing you to digitally enhance a photo, such as adding a filter or frame. However, Laura is not focused on taking better portraits. Instead, its microscopes are designed to help other scientists see biology in new ways and in exquisite detail. Its microscopes can, for example, capture the simultaneous activity of large groups of brain cells in three dimensions, a feat that could help neuroscientists understand how the brain works.

I really like this field, because it is very creative. There are new ideas and new things to think about all the time, but it’s also based on real applications

Laura Waller

Laura studied engineering and computer science in a joint bachelor’s and master’s program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she also played football. She stayed for a doctorate. which brought together his areas of interest: image processing and optics. At the time, computational imaging was just taking off. She began designing software and hardware to detect light or manipulate it, applying it to microscopes and the hidden world they can reveal.

In 2012 Laura opened her own lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Fittingly, the university’s motto is “Let there be light” or “Fiat lux” in Latin. She now holds the Ted Van Duzer Endowed Professorship in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Laura is also part of the CZ Biohub Investigator Program and is the beneficiary of a Deep Tissue Imaging Grant through CZI Imaging program.

Laura is always pushing the boundaries of imagery while juggling between parenthood and the pandemic. She has two boys, 6 months and 3 years old, and has worked from home for much of the past two years.

After 10 years as a principal investigator, she says her fascination with optics persists. When she teaches at the university, she often demonstrates optical illusions to her students, saying, “It’s not magic, it’s science.

Follow us for more on a typical day in Laura’s life as an imaging scientist and mother.

start early

(Photo by Scott Murphy)

With a baby and a toddler, my day starts early. I also do my best to think things through in the morning – when there aren’t a million emails coming in. This is when you can get things done. My husband and I exchange who takes care of the children before and after work. If I go to the lab, I try to stay a little later than I would have before the kids were born. But I also work from home a few days a week. I’m not teaching this year because I’m on maternity leave, which gives me more control over my schedule.

Mentoring and mothering

Laura is sitting on the edge of a desk.  Above the desk are three computer monitors.
(Photo by Scott Murphy)

During COVID, we decided our house was too small for two kids and two people working from home, so we moved to a much bigger house in the suburbs. I have a nice setup now, and really enjoyed working from home. I can take a 5 minute break and play with my children. And I was able to get back to work. My baby used Zoom a lot during his first four months. He slept on my shoulder while I had calls with my students. It was really amazing and my students seemed happy to see it!

Make microscopes

Laura in a computer imaging lab looks through a microscope lens
(Photo by Scott Murphy)

In my lab, we design and build new microscopes. Sometimes we try to design a microscope suitable for a very specific application. Sometimes we work on general purpose microscopes and develop and test new ideas. What’s really exciting about computational imaging is that we can push the boundaries of imaging science and then figure out what it’s for. Sometimes this mode of research allows us to come up with entirely new ways of doing things that have a greater impact than trying to use existing methods to solve existing problems.

Read also : The past, present and future of medical imaging

Hacking for Science

Laura in a computer imaging lab is holding a piece of imaging equipment.
(Photo by Scott Murphy)

In the lab we have six optical tables with two microscopes on each. Some are commercial microscopes and some are homemade. I like to hack things and be thrifty. So sometimes we make hardware modifications to commercial microscopes because it makes our methods accessible. Most researchers have commercial microscopes, so if you can simply make a modification to it, it will be easier for them to adopt the technology. We also have an electronic workstation, a 3D printer for doing mechanics, and a shelf of test objects that we use to test different cameras.

Test new technologies

Laura wears dark glasses uses equipment in a computer imaging lab
(Photo by Scott Murphy)

The CZI Science network has been a great way to find applications that can benefit from what our microscopes can do. We’ll develop a prototype, and then I’ll talk about it at a CZI grantee meeting and say, “Here’s what we can do. What’s the point?” Inevitably, I’m going to have five other recipients come and say, “Oh, I have this problem imaging proteins inside cells. Do you want to try it?” So it was great for my group to test our ideas.

Read also : Pushing the boundaries of imaging

Cultivate collaboration

Laura and the team at UC Berkeley's Computational Imaging Lab pose together outside, smiling
(Photo courtesy of Laura Waller)

My lab has a very good culture, especially in the office where students hang out and talk about science. But towards the start of the pandemic, our new students weren’t able to meet everyone properly and learn how to do things in the lab. It was not ideal. I saw a dramatic drop in the number of students saying, “Oh, that other person in the lab knows how to do this, so they’re going to help me,” just because they weren’t in touch with each other. others. And I don’t think it’s back to baseline yet. I hope the lab will return to the more dynamic collaborative culture we had before.

Meeting management

Screenshot of a Zoom meeting
(Photo courtesy of Laura Waller)

I usually have many meetings with my graduate and postdoctoral students – faculty meetings, committee meetings, and lunches to meet visitors. We just started coming back in person for our research group meetings and it’s so much better to have a real live chat. Ideally, I try to have a few days where I have all morning to work on a research paper. So a lot of my work is managing people, reading, editing, or reviewing articles, or doing service work like organizing scientific conferences.

Practice open science

For me, success is really about other people using our stuff and trying our ideas. We design methods and we want other people to use them, right? That’s why I say our greatest accomplishments aren’t that we’ve written a bunch of articles on Nature; is that we have created a method that other people have used to write a lot of articles about Nature! So the easier it is for someone else to use them, the better. We work very hard to make our methods accessible, which means the software code is available online, the hardware components are relatively cheap and easy to find or build.

Read also : How open source increases access to computing tools for every scientist

Spend time with family

Laura smiles in a swimming pool while holding her 3-year-old son.
(Photo courtesy of Laura Waller)

Our new house has a pool, so my 3 year old son is getting pretty good at swimming. We also have good optical books for children! One of them talks about how to make rainbows with a pipe, so today my son was running outside with the pipe looking for rainbows. I mean, he’s only two years old but he’s learning a bit.

stay active

(Photo courtesy of Laura Waller)
(Photo courtesy of Laura Waller)

When I’m not working or parenting, I enjoy spending time outdoors. This summer, I’m going on a hike to celebrate my friend’s 40th birthday. I join her for a few days while she completes the John Muir Trail, a 200 mile hike along the California coast. I also just started playing football again. When I was a student, I played college football, so I tried to get back into it.

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