It was a real pleasure to talk with Ouliana Panova, who joined SPT Labtech as a cryo-EM specialist in November 2021, when she took up her dual role at our company. As an Applications and Development Scientist, Ouliana works on the development side of our chameleon system for cryo-EM sample preparation. In the other part of the role, she acts as an extremely knowledgeable and valuable first point of contact within the Field Application Scientist (FAS) team, assisting customers with advice on all things cryo-EM.
Ouliana joined us from Stanford University, where she worked as a staff scientist in a cryo-EM lab with other post-doctoral researchers. Among other areas, the lab focused on membrane proteins. Ouliana came in just before the freezing stage of the process at the negative staining point. She had a complete overview of all ongoing projects and would be ready to help the other researchers characterize the negative stain and undertake the freezing process – coaching them (or conducting the freeze herself) before moving to the clipping and screening stages, adjusting parameters and refreezing if necessary. As well as overseeing the data collection and data processing for others, Ouliana conducted projects for her own publications. In addition to all this, she was responsible for everything ancillary to cryo-EM – from maintenance and supply lists, to scrubbing tweezers and keeping the lab in perfect working order.
In her role as part of the FAS team, Ouliana comes in after customers have installed a chameleon. Ouliana is there for users when they first start to use the instrument. She consults with them as they create samples and characterizations, provides advice, and tackles any problem-solving that's needed. On the development side, Ouliana acts firstly as a liaison between the users and the development team. She gathers information from users about their objectives as well as the quality of their freezes and the kinds of samples they encounter. She packages all that information together and works with the team at a conceptual level to make suggestions for improvements, while also conducting empirical development work herself – microscopy, freezing, characterization, and data analysis.
Ouliana visits customers onsite for a few days once the installation of a chameleon has been completed. She walks customers all the way through the process, from the high-level conceptual overview right down to training new users in person – freezing test samples and doing the characterization and even imaging under the microscope. During this time, Ouliana gets to spend quite a bit of time with users, learning about their aims and goals. After the initial training, Ouliana takes part in recurring biweekly meetings with users to find out how the work is progressing. This results in close collaboration and a continual flow information, where Ouliana can make suggestions and provide further advice.
Ouliana is passionate about both the engineering/development side of her role as well as her consulting with users on actual problems. She describes it as a bit like building a LEGO house: piecing together, brick-by-brick, information from users, the FAS team, and the development team, and then applying her own personal knowledge to any given challenge. In her role, Ouliana gets to meet a diversity of users and collaborators, the people she interacts with at all levels. Meeting with such a variety of people has always been something Ouliana has felt excited about – coming into new situations, adding value, and being helpful.
Our work at SPT Labtech supports important research done by universities, pharmaceutical companies, and everyone Ouliana comes into contact with. This is what gives her a real sense of contributing and adding value. From experiences in her own family, she's familiar with the impact a rare disease can have, and the difference new research can make. And so she's proud to be facilitating those who work routinely in such key areas. As Ouliana points out, it's truly exciting whether the breakthroughs make it into the nightly news or not.
Ouliana's role is unique in that it combines both applications and development. And that dual aspect is something she would like to see running in parallel in future too. Ouliana is a real mix between the scientist and the engineer. On the one hand, she wouldn't want to lose the contact she has with users, while on the other, there are interesting development areas she wants to contribute to in future. Job satisfaction for Ouliana is more about highlighting particular features of the chameleon she has helped create rather than taking on new managerial responsibilities. Over time, as she describes it, you start developing a personal connection to the instrument. With a background in material sciences, particularly, metallurgy, Ouliana is excited about our ongoing work developing new Quantifoil grids.
Outside of work, Ouliana is something of an expert at picking up handcrafts. From an early age, she developed a deep love for making things with her hands. Growing up with her grandmother, she learnt everything from embroidery and making beaded necklaces to tending the family garden. This has evolved into a huge passion for many different crafts, including leatherwork, ceramics, sewing, calligraphy, bookbinding, woodwork, stained glass, carpet tufting, and infra-red photography – to name just a few! It's all about the detail for Ouliana. If she gets into the 'flow' on one of her latest projects, the clock stands still, and she can be fully absorbed for 12 hours on end.