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Liam Whitby (Director, UK NEQAS)

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About this episode

#3 — Join us for the latest episode of Flow Stars, as we chat to Liam Whitby, Director of UK NEQAS, about his role in improving patient care through quality testing and reporting. We learn more about Liam’s love of superheroes and Disney and how he’s really just a big kid at heart, why you should always visit supermarkets while travelling, and the importance of resilience when life throws you a curve ball. Touching on tattoos, solar eclipses, and globetrotting, Liam also shares his thoughts on the main challenges for UK NEQAS and cytometry more generally in this engaging and enlightening episode.

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This is an automated transcript and may not be 100% accurate.

Intro/Outro (00:01):
Welcome to Flow Star candid conversations between Dr. Peter O’Toole and the big hitters of Flow Cytometry brought to you by Beckman Coulter at Bitesize Bio.

Peter O’Toole (00:12):
In this episode of Flow Stars, we’re joined by Liam Whitby who shares his thoughts on the perils of park runs in Florida.

Liam Whitby (00:19):
They do the briefing, you know, and he’s like give way to other people, you know, and you’re here for fun. And the Florida, the Florida ones, like be careful of alligators,

Peter O’Toole (00:28):
The importance of improving patient care. And

Liam Whitby (00:31):
I think I’ve got the personality type more for an EQA kind of kind of work because it’s more trying to see where systems could go wrong. You know, we, we were working for the benefit of the patient

Peter O’Toole (00:44):
And the value of staying young at heart

Liam Whitby (00:47):
Over the moon to meet King Louis. I don’t think you’re ever too old for Disney.

Peter O’Toole (00:50):
All in this episode of Flow Stars.

Peter O’Toole (00:58):
Hi, I’m Peter O’Toole and today I’m joined by Liam Whitby. Who’s director of UK NEQAS Liam, hiya, hi Peter thanks so much. I’ve known you for many years coming to teach on the handling, the practical Flow cytometry course up at York, but because I’m always teaching on the research side and you are always teaching on the clinical side. I don’t think I got to know you until I was forced to sit on a plane in the freezing cold for about an hour with a plane that was never going to take off even though try jump-starting it several times and only then did I really get to know you? I presume you remember that occasion.

Liam Whitby (01:39):
I’m unlikely to get it and I think it’s shameful that we were both sort of, we’d got front row seats next to the exit door, which was wide open that leaves Bradford airport with the wind whistling in, across the moors and everybody else on the plane moved. And we were that wrapped up in conversation. We didn’t notice until our hands started going numb that everybody else needs in the back of the plane. So yeah I do remember it. Yeah.

Peter O’Toole (02:01):
Yeah. We were chuffed. We were really . We can’t believe we got front row seats. It was like, that was amazing. The seat numbers, number one, you think wow. Golden ticket and then to get stuck like that and that yeah, they couldn’t close the doors for health and safety and it was rather chilly.

Liam Whitby (02:19):
Yeah, it was, it was a particularly cold, but the conversation just seemed to distract us all the way. We’ve just, I seem to remember, we just sat talking for an hour 90 minutes nonstop and it just the time flew by.

Peter O’Toole (02:32):
Yeah. Until we can no longer talk tee teeth chattering in the freezing cold, the beauty of Leeds Bradford. But that, that was really good. So I think it’s the first time we really did get to speak properly and learn more about yourself. But you know what? I never really asked you what I think I got to know you, which hopefully we’ll do throughout this and actually get to know you as a person, but I didn’t really learn much about your science and what you actually do as a day job. So I know you’re director of UK, NEQAS but what is UK NEQAS?

Liam Whitby (03:05):
Yeah. Good question UK NEQAS is the UK National External Quality Assessment Service. So essentially external quality assessment is that if you had a pathology test done in a hospital in to say Brighton, and you had the same test done in a hospital in Glasgow, you’d want the same result, you’d want consistent results to come through. You won’t want one result to say that you’re fit and healthy. And the other results said that you’re quite well. And so external quality assessment monitors that UK NEQAS is a group of about 20 different centers, each specializing in a different part of pathological science. So histology genetics, we proved to science, microbiology, hematology, chemistry and my particular area UK NEQAS Leucocyte Immunophenotyping. Then we focus on hemato oncology, molecular medical oncology and on flow cytometry. So we, we were in EQA schemes so that we’ve got about 3000 laboratories around the world that are doing EQA for various programmes.

Peter O’Toole (04:10):
Yeah, it’s called UK NEQAS. And yet it’s certainly not UK. You may be based in the UK, but it is a worldwide endeavor.

Liam Whitby (04:19):
Yeah. I mean, we’re as an organization with just 51 years old this year, but back when it started sort of back in 1969, it was very the, the original founders were with some great scientists, but the definitely the way they had a UK focus, because there wasn’t sort of international transit and things like that. So that’s the name of the, it’s just the name we’ve had historically over here. We’ve got laboratories worldwide.

Peter O’Toole (04:44):
I love the irony that it’s 51 years old just, and if I, if I’m, if I’m recalling correctly last, last week, Sunday ago, you may have been almost as old as NEQAS.

Liam Whitby (04:57):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was, I was 50. I’m just NEQAS started in 1969 and I was born in 1970, so yeah, I’ve just a little bit younger than UK NEQAS at 50 years old. So yeah.

Peter O’Toole (05:09):
Oh, you both probably thought of it at the same time though.

Liam Whitby (05:12):
Yeah, originally. Yeah, they probably were.

Peter O’Toole (05:18):
So you’re there with the conception of a NEQAS, at least. So you also President of NEQAS as well. So somehow you landed both roles simultaneously. And has that been done before?

Liam Whitby (05:31):
No, I don’t think there’s anybody else that’s quite as stupid as to as to have done that. But yeah, it was as an organization with these twenty centers and we are a registered charity in the UK. And we have a president who kind of represents the organization and will help sort of set the agenda for the organization moving forward. And I went to that post in three years ago to be elected and the, I got the role, which was fantastic. I’m done that now for two years and hopefully I’ll get another three year term at the next election. That’s carry on doing that as well. So, yeah, so I kind of got two jobs. One is actually running my own EQA service for flow cytometry, molecular oncology, and the other is assisting all the other EQA services and making sure that they run quite well.

Peter O’Toole (06:21):
This picture here is not everyone. Nope. But a large portion of the NEQAS team. Is that across the country, is that correct?

Liam Whitby (06:29):
Yeah. We have a a meeting or in the olden days when you could meet, we used to have a face-to-face meeting once a year the annual consorteum to share details and things like that because the only people in EQA are interested in some of the EQA features such as how difficult it is to get a sample of blood into Brazil. Nobody else really cares, but EQA people are passionate. You can have a 45 minute lecture on shipments into Brazil. And so peoples and all the different centers will send representatives. And that’s about half of the UK NEQAS organization. Then the other half had to stay back in the offices and laboratories running the services.

Peter O’Toole (07:04):
One of the biggest challenges for NEQAS ucurrently, well, what’s the challenging you’re facing at the moment,

Liam Whitby (07:11):
In terms of, erm our center for Flow cytometry, it’s the,ureallocation of services and the centralization of services because flow cytometry is a, it’s an art. I feel it’s, it’s not like some,uthere are some,udifferent parts of laboratory science, which are got high degree of automation. A lot of flow cytometry is still operator reliant. And because of that, there is a lot of variation, but at the moment, they’re trying to centralize a lot of these services, both within the UK and internationally. So the challenges that we’ve got is how to actually maintain our level of service when the number of laboratories may well contract, but also how we can, because we’re not for profit. Uas, as the charity, how we can sort of introduce new EQA programs to monitor these two state, large super centers that before everybody would be doing the same level of tests. And now if you have a center’s suddenly doing a lot more tests, how to sort of monitor those people in those laboratories at different levels. So those are, I would say the main challenges that we’ve got is maintaining the service. No, not

Peter O’Toole (08:18):
Wearing my research hat. We do internal controls. We do repeat experiments and so forth. And I’m sure all your centers are doing the same. They’ve got controls, they’ll do repeats, but then you’ll compare results across centers. And you’ll find that different centers come out with different results if I remember in your seminar, but that I’ve seen you gave in the past, correct? That, that from a research perspective, that’s pretty scary because I actually, if I repeated things. I publish it. It should be reproducible in anyone’s lab. And yeah, I think what, well, comment on that. What’s your thoughts around that?

Liam Whitby (08:53):
Yeah. My, my thoughts are that, you know, I’ve, I’ve read several of your papers and I’ve never tried to replicate them, but as you say, the written, so they can yeah. It can be replicated somewhere else and that can be taken forward. But the issue with the external quality assessment is we are comparing these. There’s a lot of other things. So for example one issue we used to have I’ll, I’ll say Australia particular, God, we’ll talk about specific laboratories, but I will mention countries, for example. So Australia we’ve one of our assays several years ago. They always used to go out of consensus in November, December and January. So there would be outliers and it turned out well in November, December, January, it’s their summer, temperatures were going up the laboratory hadn’t got air conditioning, something as simple as that. So working from your paper, depending on when they set their assay up, it would have, you know, it would have worked, they would have replicated your method. But then as an actually running it through the course of a year, there’s all these little pieces of weirdness, you know, change in temperature changes in sometimes changes in kit may well have the same, same thing. It could have happened that the laboratory over the, I suppose to validate it, they can be drift. You know, if you accept two SDS on a kit, and then it’s just inside of your X, two SDS on the next kit and two SDS on the next kit before you know it, you’re here and you started off there and you’ve done nothing wrong. That’s, that’s great. You know, the, the scientists have done a great job, but that drift over time, EQA will help pick that up. Yeah,

Peter O’Toole (10:29):
I guess, similar to when we QA our flow cytometers and microscopes pretty much all out kit try and encourage the team to always graph the results. Cause then they can see the trend because if you’re always compared back to the last week or the last month, Y it has pretty close, but you lose that long-term trend that drift that can happen. I think if you graph it visibly, physically, you see that your top tip is to always graph your QA results over time.

Liam Whitby (10:58):
Absolutely, absolutely. Graph everything. You, you, you can, you can see the little things, a little trends happening, sort of like the subtle shifts drifting over time, all the sudden shifts you know, I’ve got one, which is a wonderful graph, which is is so many drops. And it was the example was we’ve got a new trainee in the laboratory who was supposed to shut the machine down quickly. And he found that a faster way to shut the machine was just switch it off on the wall. So instead you coming in the following morning, we’d have no idea that it wasn’t shut down properly. Your results would have been out of consensus. And, but plotted that on a, on a graph, caught it within sort of two days, you know, day one, you think it’s a blip second day. You think there’s a pattern?

Peter O’Toole (11:46):
Yeah. Thinking of turning things on and off very rapidly. What was your first cytometer?

Liam Whitby (11:53):
It was a BD FACs scan using Consort 30 software, which was all all number driven. So you had to, if you were drawing gates you had to sort of press one to access two gates, three for a new, for, to, to draw gate and they had to type the numbers. It became you were like a telephone directory when you wanted to do things. You were just sat there hitting numbers. So yeah, three, three colorful,

Peter O’Toole (12:22):
No, you CC, always use to the switchboard with the most Legacy MoFlo. And that was like a telephone switchboard. So you probably just been being an into me and I’d have been just changing their connections through. I love my Legacy. I miss my Legacy. Yeah. You asked GeoCities AC can be more, more flexible, but there was just something I always felt at one with MoFlo, your original mode, just, you could feel it, you can sense it.

Liam Whitby (12:50):
It’s also the the, the FACS scan and it’s like, the stuff that we did then we were, what we thought was we were at the cutting edge we were doing, we would do the work in the, in the hospitals. But as technology is now moved on and you sort of look back at what you originally did you think? Yeah, I wouldn’t do that today and we wouldn’t work in those ways and some of the, because the technology and the understanding of the field has moved on so much. So yeah, I missed the original machines I sort of grew up on, but I wouldn’t be able to use them in today’s world because this, we now know so much more than we want to do so much more. So, yeah, that’s a bit nostalgic, but I wouldn’t want, if I was being tested, I wouldn’t want to use the original machines from back in the sort of eighties.

Peter O’Toole (13:30):
Ah, well, okay. For the analyzers, maybe not, but the sorter, do you know what he was doing work for some, not all the applications, you do five ways sort a lot. And the, the colors are being used a lot, but it was, yeah, it was nice for the basic stuff. It was a, well, no, I don’t think any more cost. It is basic at the time.

Liam Whitby (13:54):
Yeah. That’s the other thing is you look back on it and you were like, yeah, you were cutting edge. You were doing absolutely top-notch work. And now it’s not cutting edge in these classes. Basic. It would be a training exercise. You got a haircut. Yeah. It’s all very, very sort. Yeah. That’s shorter than mine. Yeah. Yeah. I’ll try and keep it short. It disguises the fact of how grey I’m going. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I I’ve, it doesn’t work. Okay. It definitely doesn’t, but I think he might on me.

Peter O’Toole (14:30):
Yeah, it does. On that side, cause your in the shadow that side. That sounded well. So thinking about adaptions and moving technologies, it’s quite a big thing when you get to the next cytometer or the new technology, whatever platform is you’re moving, it’s actually quite a large step a lab. And imagine in your environment, it’s a massive step when you change technology, not just from the training, but the results validating get certified and which, which in the research has maybe more flexible. How is that a nightmare in the lab or is that something that’s par for the course and not big problem

Liam Whitby (15:11):
For us? It’s it’s a little bit it’s a little bit different because, because we’re not issuing clinical results, we don’t have to go to the same level as a clinical laboratory because we are testing our samples before they get issued. But what we need to know is the pitfalls and problems of validation for a wide range of machine. If anybody is using any kind of machine you’re saying, for example, like the MoFlo that you had back in the day we need to be aware of how it works and its problems pitfalls and how you validate it. Because if the user of one of those machines went out of consensus, we then offer support and scientific advice to help get them back into it. So it’s not so much our own local validation. That’s the problem. It’s the fact that we have to be aware of validation, procedures, and problems that could cover the entire range of instruments out in the field. So that’s, that’s quite difficult, but we are quite lucky. We’ve got good relationships with all of the manufacturers. So quite often we’ll get machines in for two or three weeks just to sort of have a look and so we can familiarize ourselves with them. So that works quite well.

Peter O’Toole (16:17):
It’s the, the increased sensitivity resolution decreasing noise. I I’m, our current system with running the APDC is that’s the CB is much tighter to our variants in samples. I pull out tests and index a greater are better for it. It’s data problem for the assay’s. Cause you’re looking at a range of forms.

Liam Whitby (16:40):
Yeah. It’s a lot, it, it depends on a lot of the assays. Some of the assays are quantitative, so they’re counting the cells. So for example, CD four enumeration, which is a CD four of the cells that you lose during HIV infection. So it’s important to enumerate those in patients that have got HIV CD 34 stem cells for stem cell transplants, those are absolute counts. So you’re counting the cells. So you can get away a little bit with some of those well-established assays. So the increased sensitivity doesn’t have that much of an effect. It’s more on the leukemias. And when you start, when you’re actually wanting to know, how are these cells being expressed? These antigen has being expressed. Is it strong, moderate expression? And that’s where the difference in sensitivity of the machines can have an effect because you look at the sample on one machine, it had looked weak, you put it through another machine, it looked moderate, staining. He sort of thinking which is right. And that, that is a difference between the levels of sensitivity and that’s something we then have to try and tie in.

Peter O’Toole (17:40):
Right? So everything changed entirely, I suppose, the same for reagents as well, that the dyes and everything else that comes in, but thinking about moving on or your you’re, you’re getting on now, you’re, you’re now 50, just slightly younger than I am. So I’ve got to ask, what did you do for your birthday?

Liam Whitby (17:58):
My, well, all obviously COVID secure under the current things. So when we had a couple of them, we had a, my daughter’s daughter lives at home. So we had a barbecue lunchtime with my daughter and my other daughter who lives just across the valley from us. She came over, so we had a family, barbecue and then they left. And then we had another socially distance barbecue with them two plus family, friends, just down the road. So we just had a barbecue outside. We’ve got fortunate, we’ve got quite a large garden. And my objective was, I didn’t want, I thought my 50th birthday would be a success if I couldn’t remember it. But I actually can remember it. So I’m judging is I’m not entirely sure if I’ve met my objectives.

Peter O’Toole (18:46):
Aye, aye, aye. Yeah, no, the thought of not, no, I no. Not being able to remember in the morning. No, that that’s can’t tolerate that, but I just can’t do that anymore. Maybe when I was younger, but no, that’s a always something’s gone wrong that night when that happens. It’s just a, guards let down or some, some, some safety keys dropped out. What did you get for your birthday?

Liam Whitby (19:10):
I’ve got erm, I’m sat right now on a Mac. So Alison, my wife got me got me a Mac, cause I’ve always wanted one. It’s, it’s rather like trying to tame a lion when it, when he does it’s tricks, it’s really, really clever, but I do get the big feeling it wants to bite my hand off at any, any given moment. So I’ve got that. We’ve got several bottles of whiskey. I think there’s a lot of people think about I’ve got a drinking problem. And I’ve also booked myself in to get a tattoo.

Peter O’Toole (19:41):
Huh. And so I take it, this will be your first, is that correct?

Liam Whitby (19:47):
It will be, it will be, it should have been this coming Thursday, but they’ve had to close the, the artists has got a cold

Peter O’Toole (19:58):
W I’ve got to ask what’s the tattoo going to be off a laser light or cell looking at the scattering of light,

Liam Whitby (20:06):
No, Calvin and Hobbs. The quotes that sort of come out with it are quite sort of profound

Peter O’Toole (20:12):
The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. Okay. That’s true.

Liam Whitby (20:18):
Well, that’s what I thought. It’s true. You know, and that’s, that’s the thing is like, I never thought I’d end up where I am

Peter O’Toole (20:24):
So you going to get an actual cartoon get in that you’re going to get that one. Yeah. Okay. Next question. Where

Liam Whitby (20:34):
My thigh I’ve got quite meaty thighs. So I thought how my thigh gives plenty of scope for a suitable canvas.

Peter O’Toole (20:42):
So I guess your meaty thighs may come, what sorts of run is it?

Liam Whitby (20:47):
So it’s Park Run Saturday morning 5k do love a park run they’re sort of phenomenal getting out and keeping fit. And that said,

Peter O’Toole (20:55):
Well, it’s well and Whiting, I think isn’t it park runs, but it’s a 5k. You just rock up on a Saturday morning at nine o’clock, there’s a 5k circuit. You have a barcode. And so on record your time. So what is your PB then?

Liam Whitby (21:10):
23 and a half. So 23 and a half minutes, which is, which is good. For, for me it doesn’t put me anywhere sort of close to the front, but I’m quite happy with it, but you say it is it’s, it’s, it’s international. I mean, I’ve I’ve done one in Bergen in Norway because your barcode works there and did one in Florida. When I was there on vacation, although the Florida one was quite interesting, they do the briefing, you know, and it’s like give way to other people, you know, and you’re here for fun and the Florida group, the Flori, Florida ones, like be careful of alligators. And he’s like, yeah, you’re really funny. Like, no, we’re not joking. Be careful of alligators. And that wasn’t the day I did twenty three and half minutes though.

Peter O’Toole (21:56):
Yeah. That wasn’t your PB there, then,

Liam Whitby (21:58):
No, you just thought it would be wouldn’t you

Peter O’Toole (22:02):
Look behind, you know? Yeah. Never looked back at that point. So that obviously keeps you in trim, keeps you fit. Yeah. You live in a hilly part of the country. So I presume you used to him burning as well on your weekdays maybe.

Liam Whitby (22:17):
Yeah. When we, when we go out to train around here, so we were just inside Derbyshire, so it is quite hilly just outside Sheffield, just into Derbyshire so is hilly. So yeah, he’ll train in around here.

Peter O’Toole (22:30):
Which I was there recently. I actually, I was down yet Derbyshire , West Yorkshire border, just for their bearded vulture that is in the UK at the moment. Right. Okay. Well then you must have picked that up in the local news. No, no, I actually read beautiful countryside though. So actually we didn’t care if we saw it or not too much. We had to attempt first time he failed, but love the environment so much we came back down and did get it second time, but beautiful parts of the country to live in, moving back into work. Your career path is slightly different. So you’ve got this really prestigious post. You got a degree in biomed, so you obviously, you had the biomedical interest through it and then a master’s in pathology. Is that, correct.

Liam Whitby (23:19):
Well, pathological sciences.

Liam Whitby (23:21):
Yeah. So I, I think, I think anyone who is scientists pathological, so what did you then do after that? What was your career path to get to where you are now at the pinnacle of?

Liam Whitby (23:31):
I think it’s I don’t know. See, see, for me, I think he’s more of a career path as well. I’ll, I’ll rewind a little bit, it’s more about deciding on a career path. I knew from an early, from a sort of doing my O levels of my A levels, I wanted to be involved in medicine in a sort of in the medical field. I wasn’t a good enough student at A level to get the grades for for a medical degree. I was a little bit more well, you know what you’re like when you’re a teenager, you don’t pay attention, you don’t study hard. So I missed out on my shelf for that. So then the opportunity came up to study biomedical science and to work as a biomedical scientist in the NHS and to train as a biomedical scientist in the NHS. So I took that post up trained and got my BSC and then took it further and got my Master’s. And then, so the initial career path was to get the, to get state registered because biomedical scientists and clinical scientists in the NHS, we were registered on a central register. So the first part was to get the degree. So it could be a state registered scientist, or it could be responsible for my own work. And then the Masters was more sort of give me the extra knowledge so I could look at expanding my role and moving into different areas. So so that took me about my first six or seven years to get my degree and my Masters. Then I did two or three years building up my knowledge and actually ever working in a laboratory. And then I moved across to external quality assessment roundabout the year 2000 the opportunity came to move into the sort of a UK NEQAS working in Flow Cytometry. And I’d always loved Flow cytometry, was always my passion. I worked in the hematology service, did routine hematology, blood transfusion hemoglobin up and flow cytometry and coagulation, but Flow Cytometry, always, I don’t know, just always seem to fit for me. It was always the interesting part. So It was what I gravitate to. So when the job came up, I’m moving into that area. And then I’ve just sort of stayed there ever since. And I, I think I’ve got the personality type more for an EQA kind of kind of work because it’s more trying to see where systems could go wrong. You know, we, we were working for the benefit of the patient to make sure that the patient gets the best results. So it’s looking at the testing system and thinking, let’s just check that that works. Okay. And so that, and so it gives you a different mindset. You, you see a piece of kit, you see an assay and you think where could that break and any sort of making sure that there is that resilience that give confidence in the test. So it’s, I think it’s, it fits my mindset and I’ve just kind of stuck in that, or what’s took it, you can request and kind of, as time’s gone on, I’ve worked, worked in progressing with the organization as we’ve grown as well. When I started, there were three of us working there and I was number three in the sort of hierarchy. Now we’ve got a team of over 20 in Sheffield and I’ve managed to sort of progressive up.

Peter O’Toole (26:31):
So what have you found at work, the most challenging time in your career? Can you think back of what you found or something you found really challenging? Difficult?

Liam Whitby (26:44):
There’s been a, there’s been several times I’d class I’d class as challenging

Peter O’Toole (26:50):
Besides this recording, this interview I mean,

Liam Whitby (26:53):
Obviously COVID, yeah, this is sort of fairly, fairly wild at the moment. But before that, I mean, I, I also work with Alison who’s, my wife, we actually met when we were both training. She then went to work at the blood transfusion service. I worked at NEQAS, but then the post came up at NEQAS she applied and got it. So we worked together. So it’s that’s been quite good. And we did

Peter O’Toole (27:20):
Working with Alison’s the most challenging thing. No,

Liam Whitby (27:23):
No, it’s not. We, we started off as laboratory partners, so it’s quite natural for us. But when Alison got ill she had a severe illness. She had breast cancer a few years ago. That was challenging for me because every day she was going through what she was going through and I was still having to turn up to work and do the job and actually keep things, things running. So personally that was the most challenging time for me.

Peter O’Toole (27:49):
Sorry. How did you balance that? Because that’s quite a big deal, you know, to, to balance that side. I mean, obviously in your early career you’d have had children, you’d had to balance the work life there, but actually caring for somebody is also probably a bigger challenge. Bigger stress.

Liam Whitby (28:05):
Yeah. And it says it was trying to manage two things the situation at home because obviously Alison she’s the love of my life. And so, you know, so trying to manage that also trying to manage the situation at work where we’re a member of staff down and we’ve got a long-term absence because somebody is ill. So it’s then increasing workload and then adding stress there, so that was, that was definitely one of those challenging times. I would say that I feel I worked through.

Peter O’Toole (28:30):
So, so she, so she gave you double the stress then. Yeah.

Liam Whitby (28:33):
Yeah. And that’s the problem. So that’s a big, yeah. I mean, that does fade sort of fade a little bit in terms of sort of the larger scale challenge that we’ve all that everybody’s facing at the moment with COVID. But but yeah, no, that was, that was, it was not a good time. And also the resilience that you also need when you’ve got things going off in your personal life to still come into work and do the job because there’s a patient at the end of it, you know, there’s these patients, there there’s there’s results that need excellent quality assessment doing. You’ve just got to come in and grind and grind through it. Sometimes you got to have that resilience. And I think that’s, that’s one of the things that I really think is helpful in any field is having the resilience to sort of be able to sort of do the job. And if you’re there to do the job, doing the job well, and then when you get home,

Peter O’Toole (29:23):
So do you still enjoy your job? I love it. I wasn’t, I must help as well. The fact that, you know, to be able to enjoy your job does give you a bit of respite as well.

Liam Whitby (29:36):
Yeah. yeah. It’s and it’s the, it’s the day-to-day, it’s the day-to-day challenges of it that I love as well. It’s like no two days are the same, you know, we have a schedule of exercises that are going out throughout the year. So on any given week, we all know what’s happening. We’re making samples, we’re shipping samples, we’re looking at data, so we all know what’s happening. But even with that, there’s are the day-to-day challenges. These are the little sort of little pieces of weirdness that throw up that need troubleshooting these new machines coming online, that we have to develop EQA for these new techniques come online. And so it’s every day is different. So yeah, I love it. Couldn’t imagine doing anything else

Peter O’Toole (30:15):
Besides traveling. Cause actually I guess during that period, it was difficult. You probably couldn’t travel much either. I’d be okay with that. But I think Bangkok,

Liam Whitby (30:28):
Bangkok. Yeah. Thailand. Yep. Yep.

Peter O’Toole (30:32):
No. Now I’ve got no idea where some of these are

Liam Whitby (30:35):
Charleston, South Carolina and the ship is yeah. It’s the USS Yorktown. Okay. Should go and have a wonder around that it’s it’s quite cool, aircraft carrier. Yes. American aircraft carrier. Yes. U

Peter O’Toole (30:49):
Well I presume Venice. Yeah.

Liam Whitby (30:52):
India Jaipur. One of the, I will seriously state Jaipur one of the top five days of my life. I’m obliged to say the top three would be getting married and having two kids. Seeing the solar eclipse was also up there, but Jaipur Jaipur was number five. It’s an amazing city. I mean, India is an amazing place. Oh yeah. Yeah. That was in Charleston that we saw that that was a 2017. I would advise everybody to put it on their bucket list. It’s an amazing site.

Peter O’Toole (31:21):
2000, oh gosh, what year was it in this country? We had a solar eclipse.

Liam Whitby (31:25):
About 98 2002 yeah. I was too lazy to go down to Cornwall. So instead of going 300 miles to Cornwall, I went 3000 miles to South Carolina. I, I, I’m just interested Table Mountain, South Africa. Yeah. South Africa. Yeah. I’ve been fortunate and that’s, that’s one of the things I think if you do your work and you enjoy your work and you are also very fortunate, which I have been, so we’ve been involved in lots of work that said this unique EQA with this only two or three EQA providers doing flow cytometry around the world. So our data we’ve got phenomenal amount of data. We can give a lot of insight and you get gather a lot of knowledge through that. So I’ve been very fortunate myself and my team that we get to in the olden days before before COVID get to travel and lecture internationally and share that knowledge because that’s one of the things about UK NEQAS is when I said we’re a charity, we’re actually, we’re not healthcare charity, we’re educational. That’s our, we want better patient testing through education. So we go out and we run courses in places and we’ll, we’ll give lectures that was after I’ve just run a one week course in South Africa on flow cytometry. So so yeah,

Peter O’Toole (32:41):
It, it just reminds me of that era that, that sitting on the airplane with you just rabbiting in my ear. Yeah.

Liam Whitby (32:47):
Sorry. Yeah, it does look very much that way. That was also India always go to supermarkets in different countries. It’s eye opening because you’ll see so many different foods and things.

Peter O’Toole (32:58):
Yeah. We don’t see many big markets stalls anymore. Not, not fruits and vegetables. So there are some, but yeah, I think he would think supermarkets are more limited now than what you were all about volume than than variety.

Liam Whitby (33:14):
Yeah. It’s all the sort of same stuff you’ve got sort of green peppers yellow pepper, red pepper. And that’s, that’s it. Whereas you, you, you go, you go to supermarket in in Kuwait or you go to a market store in India and the variety is amazing. And I think it’s, it’s good to sort of see things like that cause you, sort of widens your horizons, I think travel have been fortunate to be able to travel through my role, but it also opens your eyes into different ways of working and how different different countries operate and things that you might be able to do differently to improve things over there as well. So definitely worth doing, if you’re fortunate enough to travel for work, do, if you can’t travel for work, do try and travel normally because it broadens the mind. It really does.

Peter O’Toole (34:01):
I think think of that variety, I think to imagine, cause it is like the colors of the fluorochromes. And if you enter fluorescent proteins, you’ve got your watermelons. You’ve got your bananas, your honey dews. You’ve got no. Honey dew melons not watermelons. Haven’t done that one yet. You’ve got your banana, you’ve got your cherries, you’ve got your plums, you’ve got your tomatoes, your orange. So you’ve got all these fruits, but actually even in our own wellness there the fluorescent proteins, but even the antibody dyes. There’s more of a more different dye types coming out even to stay. I was opening up a whole new dye type frustratingly, unlike a vegetable where you can cut it and see what’s inside it to understand it. And what’s good. What’s bad. A lot of the new fluorochromes that come out, we don’t know the details. It’s not just straight organic molecules and there’s a lot of proprietary information. I’d love to know more behind what’s the scene. And yeah, there’s a lot of hidden that they never used it. But I remember all we can grains and alexa dies when they came out. They were published. Yes, not so much the case at the moment

Liam Whitby (35:03):
Now. And then assisting a couple of a couple of Italian colleagues. They’ve written a book on Flow cytometry and it’s got an extensive section on the different dyes and they’ve asked me to proof, read it as a, as a native English speaker. So I’m doing that for, and the number of dyes in there where they’re going to great detail is phenomenal. It’s a, it’s a really good book, but then there are other dyes where they just say, the name of the dye say the structure is unknown at this time. And that’s because the manufacturers have obviously discovered the molecule and patented it. Which is good. Obviously I’m in favor of it intellectual property, but it can lead to sort of unknown effects. If you don’t know er, if you don’t know if it’s a positive or a negatively charged fluorochrome that can have an effect on some of the assays that you’re going to run straight away. Right.

Peter O’Toole (35:48):
It does mean we need to do more control, experiments, more pilot experiments to see what they, what else they could be useful because it’s just tied up in that. But, but yes, for us, the big thing is we’re getting better dyes and more options. And that that’s a good thing. I think it’s been great. You know, I, I think 10 years ago, flow cytometry, wasn’t going forward at a rapid pace, dyes were trickling out and probably the colors that were helping. But actually the technology is now really blossomed. We got far more lasers, detectors, detector types are changing. We’ve got more colors, even new approaches. Removing colors in some cases, but while it’s exploded in so much, and actually it’s quite hard to keep on top of everything which is matching publications helped keep on top.

Liam Whitby (36:42):
Yeah. I mean, that’s it, publications are the key I think is always to read as much as you can is always the thing is sort of try and I mean, I’m, I’m fortunate in that I’m a peer review of, for several journals. So I do get to see pre publication papers in terms of things that are current, but as well as reading the latest papers and, and things along those lines is that is very important, but it’s good because there’s, there’s lots of apps and things out. Now

Peter O’Toole (37:10):
You introduced me to to one of those apps actually, which has been really useful.

Liam Whitby (37:15):
Yeah. Well you just put in, you put in a couple of key words. So if you’re interested in Flow cytometry, you put that in. If you were interested in malaria, you’d put that in and it will automatically search the internet and populate your phone for you with brand new papers, daily

Peter O’Toole (37:30):
Email on a monthly basis, or when a new publication that area pings straight in.

Liam Whitby (37:35):
Yeah. It’s, it’s superb. It makes it, it makes the sort of days of going down to the library and sort of going through the shelves and pulling out the back journals and scrolling through them. I mean, those were, I mean, I look back on those days with a little bit of fondness, but don’t miss them, just having it ping on my phone and say, you’ve got a new papers. I’m like, yep. That’s great. I’ll read that. It’s much better.

Peter O’Toole (37:54):
So thank you for that. Cause I actually, I did pick that up and I did adopt that. Yeah. The other thing that you actually introduced to me was a Tiger Stripe coffee, which it was your birthday. You came up to teach on York and as for birthday presents, you gave me on your birthday, a bag of coffee beans. Which was Tiger Stripe and actually I froze them. So I’ll have them very occasionally it’s quite, it’s quite, it’s more robust than my normal, but now I say it for today to celebrate your, but it’s a cheers for your birthday.

Liam Whitby (38:28):
Thank you. Cheers. Yeah, I’ve finished my coffee, so yeah. Cheers.

Peter O’Toole (38:31):
Good afternoon coffee. That one. Oh, look at that. Always have to do me go and get your glass, your glasses. I so wish, you know, I’ve got a mini one of these as well.

Liam Whitby (38:45):
Yes. They know he’s there. Yeah. With with caffeine I’m, I’m I’ve been addicted to caffeine three or four times in my life and each time I’ve come off it through cold Turkey or gently weaning myself off, I’m an addicted to it again right now. And I’m going to ride it all the way through for the next sort of 50 years. I’ve given in, I’m a slave to it.

Peter O’Toole (39:06):
I, I, so actually I’m similar to you. I’m a strong decaf person and then it on those occasional days where you really want to ride it, but those days seems to be more and more frequent and needing to ride it. So it’s yeah. The thin edge of wedge is already in my door moving towards but it’s a great coffee. So thank you. Yeah. I do prefer blondes for beans, but actually for an afternoon one doesn’t hold up. This holds up really well. So I’m brave enough to have more than seven in the morning. Yeah.

Liam Whitby (39:38):
Well then I was going to bring you some more, but obviously the RMS Boston’s a great course and I look forward to it every single year. That’s why, I mean, usually I will say last year was the first time I’d ever worked on my birthday in my entire career. I always take my birthday off as, as part of my annual leave. But last year when I was, I spoke on the RMS I came up with like tubes. I think it’s a great course. It’s an honor to be asked. But I thought, yeah, I’ve got to get you some beans and I’ve gotten some this year, but obviously the course had to be a delayed, but that’s fine. I’ll bring you some next year.

Peter O’Toole (40:15):
Yeah. I’m looking at, [inaudible] make sure it’s next year. Well, it makes

Liam Whitby (40:20):
It, at least it keeps my name on it. So have a list of lecturers as well. That’s probably the only thing that’s keeping me there.

Peter O’Toole (40:27):
No, of course feedback’s always excellent. And that the quality analysis side is really essential for the clinical sessions of that course thinking. So we’ve gone through sort of a challenging times. What about career highlight for you? Oh, I’m not talking about your gray hair as a highlight. So talking about your career highlights.

Liam Whitby (40:48):
For me, it’s sort of when we sort of delivering and improving the services. So, I mean, for me, I’m one of them. So in terms of NEQAS LeucocyteImmunophenotyping was we introduced a new program and I sort of looked to all the scoring systems, how we monitor performance. And at the time we had 15 different programs and we had 14 different scoring systems. And so one program, if you scored zero, you were perfect. And then in another program, if you scored zero, you were really out of consensus. And the problem was, is that laboratories could be in both programs. So they get on one and zero’s bad on the other end, zero is good. And I managed to sort of rejig the entire report process and actually sort of streamline it sort of redesign how we actually do it. So it’s more informative for laboratories and that was a project that was sort of a personal thing that I sort of took on and lead. I was really, really proud of that. On a more NEQAS wide sort of viewpoint recently with the COVID there was a, there’s a need for sort of COVID EQA and there’s seven different centers doing COVID EQA. We’ve got microbiology century in London and we’ve got an immunology center in Sheffield. But for the first COVID EQA program, there was a need to get out quite quickly. And from the first, well basically we, I pulled together a special task force and we pulled the task force together. And from the first meeting of the task force to the exercise, closing and reports going out was two weeks to actually design an EQA program, recruit the laboratories, getting the material, get the material out, getting results back, analyze the results. And there was, that was a pan NEQAS. Then we got people in London, analyzed the data. We got people in Birmingham building the computer system. We got people in Sheffield packing the samples. And so that was a really proud moment to turn something like that round in two weeks. And then they give a plan would be for thinking about an EQA program and getting one out of the door about six months. Um you know, it’s because you’ve, you’d sort of think about it. You’d sort of get, do it small scale. You do some little send-outs locally, but it’s like, no, we need it. We need it now. And then, and I think that reflected really well on the entire organization. So that was a particular high for me.

Peter O’Toole (43:08):
How Stressful was it at the time?

Liam Whitby (43:11):
Oh, absolutely abismal for I don’t think I slept properly for that entire two weeks. Yeah.

Peter O’Toole (43:19):
It’s a great ride. It’s it’s you? Yeah. You love it, but the stress I can imagine being

Liam Whitby (43:27):
Yeah. Oh yeah. The stress was was horrendous. I didn’t, you know, I didn’t, I didn’t sort of take any formal measurements. But yeah, for, for about two weeks I didn’t sleep thinking about different permutations of what could happen. And, and, and that’s true. I think of everybody that was involved, it’s not just me, it wasn’t all on my shoulders. It was you know, I was coordinating it, but there were lots of other people with involved and they were all the same everywhere. Everybody, everybody was stressed, but it needed to be done.

Peter O’Toole (43:56):
And so the team, obviously you coordinate a lot of that and talking to a lot of the team, how good nature were they, even though it’s stressful where they were they showing angst and stress or were they actually fairly jovial for auntie? I, I kind of liked being a bit, I’m a bit more positive person.

Liam Whitby (44:11):
I think th the vast, I think the vast majority of the times it was people were jovial. We’ve got a mountain to climb and on the rare occasions, when people would get a little bit deflated, the rest of everybody else would sort of pick them up a little bit and we could get through it together. It was all about, and everybody being there for each other. So yeah, it was stressful. There was several sort of very stressful emails and phone calls and things, but those were the, those were those were the exception and not the rule.

Peter O’Toole (44:45):
Okay. Cause you, COVID was obviously easy an exception and that, that intensity, but there must be times in work that, that, that that’s not that uncommon where there’s crunch points where that type of feeling comes about. Oh

Liam Whitby (44:58):
Yeah. That’s very confusing. There’s lots of, sort of different grid points that we are concerned that we’ve got a very big schedule that we have to sort of stick to in terms of getting the samples out and getting the material out, getting the results back. And then it’s also when we do have performance issues to actually follow it up with laboratories, because these patients as say at the end of it, that’s a good point because we’ve got to get that action in place really quickly. And then that can be quite stressful. So get that delivered to actually improve patient safety and improve the quality of the results

Peter O’Toole (45:30):
That, which we have, which is a big responsibility. So when you get home at night, how do you wind down some quick, do you want to take, what would you rather do book or a film?

Liam Whitby (45:43):
It depends on my mood. Most often it’ll be a film. I am trying, I am trying to read more because he said, I think we can read it and just reading anything. I think he’s just not, he just needed to take things in. And so I set myself reading challenges quite often as one of my new, my new year’s resolutions quite often tend to be reading challenges. So I prefer to read, but I’m fundamentally lazy. So more often than not, I’ll watch a film,

Peter O’Toole (46:11):
So, okay. So TV or film

Liam Whitby (46:17):
More often than not TV sort of various TV series. If you’re gonna sort of say what kind of thing I’ll be honest and you could, you could see on the on the picture of me running superheroes Marvel is my predominant thing. So Marvel TV series, the Marvel the Marvel shows Marvel movies. Yeah, there’s me. I mean, on one hand it’s a little bit sad for a 50 year old guy to be running in captain America top. But on the other hand, there’s the 12 and 13 year old boy who got sort of bullied at school for liking comics. You know what, it’s my time. Marvelous. Thank you. Yeah,

Peter O’Toole (47:01):
We haven’t done many puns today, so I thought I had to get a one or two. So, so come on 50 year old, man. What’s this about? It’s

Liam Whitby (47:09):
Just a photo. I love, I’m really happy about that. King Louis is one of my favorite Disney characters I got to meetin Disneyland. I was just over the moon. You asked for several photographs of travels and that is genuinely one of my favorite photographs. I was just over the moon to meet king Louis. I don’t think you’re ever too old for it. Isn’t it? So as soon as you go through the gates at Disneyland, you’re, you’re eight old again.

Peter O’Toole (47:30):
You are just a big kid. So what sort of say, oh, you told us your genre. It’s like quick fire, quick fire. So quick answers. 18 or retired

Liam Whitby (47:43):
Eat out, eat out. Definitely.

Peter O’Toole (47:46):
Okay. Wash up or cook,

Liam Whitby (47:49):
Right? Wash up. Yeah, wash up. I can cook, but I’m very much I’m going to say a scientist cook and I would say that I will follow the protocol and the recipe to the letter I’m making with it. Oh, I am. I’m terrible. Steph. Yeah. No stars

Peter O’Toole (48:08):
That never eat gradients change. It’s not like the scientific grade ingredients you’re buying from your supermarket. They always vary. You have to go with baking. Maybe you’re getting those and stuff. Yeah. It has to be. You have to always modify it as you go through. I just can’t cook then

Liam Whitby (48:28):
Alison has to do the cooking. Not because I can’t, but just because I can’t do it in time. If, if I was to cook, then we wouldn’t be in sort of 10 o’clock at night,

Peter O’Toole (48:37):
I guess, by the insinuation. You’d rather eat out than in that. You don’t like her cooking either. She’ll kill you after this.

Liam Whitby (48:48):
Well, I don’t, I I’m probably out more than in because they don’t make me wash the pots.

Peter O’Toole (48:53):
Yeah. I mean, not a dishwasher.

Liam Whitby (48:56):
Yeah. But it still needs loading and unloading.

Peter O’Toole (48:59):
Ah, that’s my morning. I get up early in the morning before I go run and go swimming and I’ll unload the dishwasher. First thing before anyone gets up as quietly as I can. So I ask everyone to order the dishwasher really methodically. So it minimizes the noise of things, like getting cutlery out all the knives in one area all the so it’s not that one rattle rattle. So I don’t wake the family.

Liam Whitby (49:20):
I’d love to be where you have to send me so many, a couple of screenshots for that so I can try and mimic it here.

Peter O’Toole (49:26):
Yep. Yeah. It’s a bit, yeah, it’s a bit OCD. Maybe the way I want it locally. Everyone, everyone knows it makes sense. Makes life unloading it. Isn’t a pleasure loading it. One thing at a time, you can put things in the right place and unloading so much easier. Yeah. It’s just like keeping your shelves on in your lab, stacking in the buy order. It’s easy to put one thing in the right place. And then when you’re doing, getting lots, it’s easier to download it. Yeah. Yeah. How she’s like a lab. It should be well-stocked and well-ordered.

Liam Whitby (49:56):
Yeah, I totally agree. Absolutely agree.

Peter O’Toole (50:00):
So just thinking, cause we could be coming towards an end and I’ll let you think about something in a minute. What do you think is the biggest unmet need or the challenge ahead? I would say you’re probably a technologist. Is it a technology? Is it probes? Is it an assay type?

Liam Whitby (50:18):
I think for me I’m going to say technology, but with a little bit of a, of a twist, I think the the thing is in terms of as we’re moving, I mean, it was great. I mentioned the FACS scan and that was a three colour machine. So when you actually got the results, it’s in three dimensions and you and me with three dimensional creatures, we exist in a three-dimensional space. We can find things forward, left right up and down

Peter O’Toole (50:44):
Also. No, I’ve got to stop you and 4d. Cause I have time as a dimension as well.

Liam Whitby (50:50):
Yeah, it does it, yeah. 4D that does help. But if that was also true, you’ll be able to find things you put down yesterday.

Peter O’Toole (50:58):
I don’t go, but I never look backwards in time. I’m always going forward, but I’m not stuck in time with my comics. Yeah,

Liam Whitby (51:04):
Well, yeah, like me, but as you move with them dimensions, you can’t certainly at the moment we’ve got doing 10 colour, we’ve got 12 colour machines and your, your brain’s not set up for 12 dimensions. So for me, I think the technology is the better software tools are better algorithms so that we can analyze this massive data because we’ve got all this great data and quite often I’ll, I’ll see people still doing it on one dimensional histograms. So we’ve got 12 colors, but they’re not actually doing 12 single colors, not one 12 colored assay. And I think it’s the high dimensional data and analysis technology. That’s really going to lift those up to the next level. So I think I’ll be honest. I think we’re missing things in terms of, we’re not able to see what with what really there, because there’s so much data.

Peter O’Toole (51:52):
I think even with high dimensional analysis, as it stands today, it is still directed by what we ask it and how we ask it to analyze it. I do think that actually we need computer learning to an extent to start identifying cell populations and trends, high intensity versus high intensity populations versus low intensity populations, not just positives and negatives and start to find trends that we just haven’t picked up on. That could be vital. And we haven’t got there yet. Nope.

Liam Whitby (52:21):
Now, and I think whoever does crack that is going to really sort of lift flow cytometry to the next level. I know there are some tools out there at the moment, but nothing’s really made it. Everything’s shown a lot of promise. Nothing’s really made it to the sort of big time and sort of general sort of adoption.

Peter O’Toole (52:39):
Obviously. I think that’s it. So sorry Liam. The high dimension that’s certainly going forward and I think there’ll be those that think it’s the crack the nut, but they haven’t, you know, that they’ve, there may be found the cracker to crack the nut and it, it, it, it cracks the shell a bit, but they haven’t got to the center of it yet. No,

Liam Whitby (53:02):
No, I think that’s, that’s definitely where I think we can we can improve and I think that’ll help a lot of, a lot of issues like you say with a bit of machine learning in that as well. I think that will also that’ll that’ll take us forward some really, I think Flow cytometry is doing some fantastic work, but I think that will really lift us up even further

Peter O’Toole (53:20):
For your clinical site. It’s fascinating. You say, you know, we now got 10 colors, 12 colors, and the clinical market is so much further, obviously much further behind than research, which proves to higher, higher color loads of the new technologies. But you find it frustrating that you haven’t got quick access or easy access to 20 plus colors.

Liam Whitby (53:41):
Yeah, it is. It’s difficult for us because we’ve not always got access to every single machine and, but yeah, 20 plus colors that’d be great. So I have access to that, but because we are a clinical, we provided the service with clinical end. That’s where we do focus, but we do look at the new machines and try and get get some hands on time with them, and get familiar with them. So we know what’s coming over the horizon

Peter O’Toole (54:05):
And it is so we are up to the hour. So I’m going to ask you one last question, which is, do you have a favorite science joke? And if not, just, what is your best joke?

Liam Whitby (54:16):
I’ve got favorite science joke. It took me, you know, if any, she did the, you did pretty, I’m going to try and tell it. So A guy goes into a library, says to the librarian. Have you got that book about to Pavlov’s dogs and Schrodinger’s cat librarian says, well, it rings a bell, but I’m not sure if it’s in or out. That’s so bad. It’s epic. It’s like you got two lots. You’ve got physics, you’ve got biology It’s awesome.

Peter O’Toole (54:51):
Nice play on words. I know, I know on that note, Liam Thank you very much for joining me today. It’s been terrific to hear about different career paths and what certainly those do their PhDs, that moments, and there’ll be looking forward. It is a different career path and it’s equally rewarding. Maybe even more rewarding for some people, if that’s my mind and you actually having a direct impact in the clinical medical environment.

Liam Whitby (55:23):
Yeah. There’s lots of different careers with good scientists in the NHS. There really are these, you know, these work in the clinical science of those biomedical sciences. I’ve got three of my staff PhDs. One of my stuff is doing a PhD and there’s plenty of opportunity within the NHS. And I think the thing is that people are driven and keen for succeed in any field. But I do think the NHS, I think is a, is a great field. And like you’re saying, it’s, you’re giving direct benefit to, to patients and I think that’s, yeah, that’s beyond compare.


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