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Teng-Leong Chew (HHMI Janelia Research Campus)

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About this episode

#39 — Ever wondered just what it’s like working at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus? Teng-Leong Chew, Director of the Advanced Imaging Center at Janelia, joins Peter O’Toole for episode #39 of The Microscopists to let us know.

We’ll also discover what it was like moving from Malaysia to Wisconsin during a blizzard-enforced University of Wisconsin shutdown, and hear more about street art and unexpected violin recitals. We’ll learn about the challenges that Chew has faced in his career, as well as the highlights, and hear why he is so passionate about equitable access to microscopy technology.

Follow Peter, Chew, and HHMI Janelia Research Campus on Twitter!

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

Intro/Outro (00:01):
Welcome to The Microscopists, a Bitesize Bio podcast hosted by Peter O’Toole, sponsored by Zeiss Microscopy. Today on The Microscopists.

Peter O’Toole (00:14):
Today on The Microscopists I’m joined by Leong Chew Director of the Advanced Imaging Center at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus. And we discuss what makes Janelia so special

Leong Chew (00:25):
As a microscopist. You know, it is very hard to find another position that is more exciting than to make technology developed at Janelia available to, to the rest of the world with, without any cost

Peter O’Toole (00:40):
Moving from the tropical climate to Malaysia, to Wisconsin.

Leong Chew (00:45):
The first day I arrive in Wisconsin that is the day when the University of Wisconsin shut down for the first time in 20 years because of a blizzard and everybody thought, wow, this guy’s not gonna make it

Peter O’Toole (01:02):
Really unexpected violin recitals.

Leong Chew (01:06):
People actually bought tickets to hear me play without me realizing it. And at the end, I was like, wait, why do people pay, pay tickets to, to listen to me? That’s crazy.

Peter O’Toole (01:16):
And his work disseminating microscopy skills and knowledge in Africa.

Leong Chew (01:22):
If you make the microscopy opportunity equally accessible, it, it will not be equitably accessed.

Peter O’Toole (01:32):
Ooh, in this episode of The Microscopists. Hi, welcome to this episode of The Microscopists. I’m Peter O’Toole from the University of York, and today I’m joined by Leong Chew from the Howard Hughes Research Campus at Janelia pharms. How are you?

Leong Chew (01:52):
Good. I’m very well Happy New Year, Peter. Thanks for having me

Peter O’Toole (01:56):
Happy and I forgot it’s it’s Janelia Research Campus. Isn’t it not Janelia?

Leong Chew (02:00):
It is Janelia research. Yes. Yes.

Peter O’Toole (02:03):
So why did it change its name?

Leong Chew (02:07):
It’s a long story actually. Do you know the, the history of, of Janelia pharms,

Peter O’Toole (02:14):
Not intricately?

Leong Chew (02:15):
Well, okay. So Janelia, I is a autonomous research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. And, and when they do decided to do, to, to build this campus it was early 2000 and they were looking for an area where they can actually build this research campus. And the area has to be, you know, in a way zone for biological research purposes. And then after a lot of searches and they finally to make a long story, very short, they finally found this place and it was originally owned by the owned by the Pickens family and the Pickens family have two daughters Jane and Cornelia, hence the name Janelia pharms. So, and, and so when Howard Hughes Medical Institute bought this piece of land, they decided to, to you know, adopt this very cute and, and, and endearing name of Janelia pharms. And I think right after I joined Janelia, which I believe is 2014 or 15 at the time. And they decided to, to remove the word pharms to, to, to make it, you know, fit the, the, the research purposes of, of, of of research mission of Janelia, better than having the word pharms in the name,

Peter O’Toole (03:41):
But it’s stuck. It was quite good. Oh, it still sticks. It, it is

Leong Chew (03:43):

Peter O’Toole (03:45):
So, so it, wasn’t such a bad thing. It’s a great story as well. So where were you before Janelia?

Leong Chew (03:50):
I was at in, at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Peter O’Toole (03:55):
So why the move to Janelia? I think it’s in a obvious answer, but I’ve got some, oh,

Leong Chew (04:01):
That that’s a very obvious answer. Right. and, and I don’t think that as a microscopist you know, it’s is very hard to find another position that is more exciting than to make technology developed at Janelia available to through the rest of the world with, without any cost. And frankly, that is the advanced imaging center was at the time sort of the prototype open excess microscopy facility for the rest of the world. And frankly, nobody knows how to run it. It is there’s no precedent of, of, of for, for this kind of, of open excess shared resource for microscopy. So I thought, wow, that is not only exciting. It is challenging. It’s intimidating, sign me up.

Peter O’Toole (04:53):
And you say, there’s no cost, but there’s obviously a cost, but that’s covered by

Leong Chew (04:59):
The, the, the Advance Imaging Center for the past eight years has been joined me sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. And, and for those who don’t know who, who Gordon Moore is the founder of Intel, and I’m sure you have heard of the Moore law if you’re interested in, in electronics and computer science. So that’s the Moore.

Peter O’Toole (05:22):
So why, why prefer the lay audience that are not dedicated microscopists like ourselves? Why is having access to these microscopes so important? What, what is different about what you are offering than you can get from my facility in York, for example.

Leong Chew (05:39):
So you, you know, that the microscopy technology is developing leaps and bounds. It is really fast. And, and I think for in this renaissance of microscopy, if you will, I think the development of microscopy has significantly outpaced the, the commercialization process. And, and even though commercialization process is the ultimate most efficient way of disseminating technology, but they just cannot keep up. And so, and if you look at the, the, the process of commercialization, sometimes an instrument will take a good eight years, 10 years before it can be commercialized from the time it was published. And so the rest of the world will be waiting for transformative technologies such as this and, and, and to no avail. And the AIC was set up, or the Advanced Imaging Center was set up precisely to, to fill this gap before the instrument is, is, is commercialized. So is the only house pre-commercial instrument that is not available anywhere else in the world. And, and so when the commercial technology ends and that’s when the AIC begins, it doesn’t mean that every single experiment has to be done at the Advanced Imaging Center. In fact, most of the experiment can be done in an excellent imaging center such as yours. But when you, when the biologists need to push that envelope for something smaller, deeper, faster, gentler that is when people come to, to, to, to theAIC

Peter O’Toole (07:17):
And how, how, why is it that you get on the new technology? How come it’s the Janelia has all these new really cool technologies that, that, and your wording was right, the transformative, they enable biological researchers in all walks of biological research to address questions that couldn’t be addressed without it. How does Janelia get these technologies first?

Leong Chew (07:42):
It is, I think in a way, because of the way, HHMI fund research, especially at Janelia we don’t have a study section just like the NIH where you submit a grant to do a predetermined study section. And you, you in know, we have to fit the mission and the ethos of, of the, of that study section before your, your grant can be funded here. It is extremely you know, with, with extreme scientific freedom, if you will. So that a lot of the scientists that Janelia get to pursue what they wanna do. And one of the things that Janelia pay attention to, and, and I think give significant amount of freedom is tool building. And this is one thing that I think is pretty unique to, to, to Janelia, especially in, in, in its early days. And, and in a way we have attracted, you know, many microscopy develop developers into Janelia. So it is a, it is in fact, a very exciting place for, for microscopy development.

Peter O’Toole (08:45):
So, and, and obviously on The microscopists, we’ve had Eric Betzig, we’ve had Harald Hess been to just those leading scientists. So you said when you joined there, it was intimidating. It was maybe scary. I know when I joined Jo, there was a microscopy called Justin Molloy. His reputation was really big and I thought, oh, crikey, you know, I knew my stuff, but he’s a different league above me and his skillset, know, he’s that mindset? You’ve got Eric, you’ve got Harald you got, how, how do you cope with that? Because obviously that they are, I’m not judging your skills, but they must be very intimidating, not in their nature, but just in to be able to deliver what they want you to deliver in the AIC. Yes. It’s a lot to learn.

Leong Chew (09:30):
It’s a lot to learn and, and being an a microscopist, you can help. I feel like an idiot everyday at Janelia. That’s what my team think of me. So so yeah, it, it, it is intimidating it, and I think the, the more important word I think is humbling is how good they are. And, and don’t forget also people like Philipp Keller who just, they just crank out one technology after another. And, and, and it is humbling. It is exciting. Absolutely. You get used to it. Yeah. You, you get, you get used to that feeling very quickly.

Peter O’Toole (10:09):
And I would probably argue, now I’ve talked to them. I, they can’t answer back on this. That it’s a very different skill in making that available to others. Yes. it’s a very different skillset, a very different career path.

Leong Chew (10:23):
Absolutely. Absolutely. It, it, because it, it’s not so much technology development is technology dissemination, right? So you, you actually do really need to work with a lot of biologists. And the most important thing is to just like, you know, what, what you’re doing at your own imaging core facility. One, one of the most important tasks or responsibility of a core director is to actually match the biological experiment with the right instrument and, and, and maybe even, you know, help them design experiments that can be quantitative that can challenge their own hypothesis to do all that appropriately. I think that that’s what we do.

Peter O’Toole (11:06):
So just taking you back, you, you, you got to in your current job from Chicago, where did your interest in microscopy start

Leong Chew (11:15):
In Chicago actually. Okay. When, when I was, when, when I was a postdoc so I, I developed one of the earliest FRET sensor to look at mice lichen [inaudible] activity. And at that time we didn’t really have a, a, a good microscope to be able to, to, to generate the data that we wanna do, especially to work with that biosensor, that I’ve generated. And, and in fact, that is when I really picked up a lot of the my, my, my microscopy knowledge.

Peter O’Toole (11:49):
So what was your first degree in?

Leong Chew (11:54):
My undergraduate degree is microbiology and biochemistry. I, I double majored. And then when I was a, a PhD candidate, I was in molecular pathology by looking at cytoskeletal arrangement in endothelial cells. And then I, I continue on that, my, my passion on in cytoskeleton reg regulation. And by the time I get to post-doc, I decided to look at the, the spatial temporal resolution of, of cytoskeleton. That’s you, you, you can’t avoid microscopy with a project like that. Yeah,

Peter O’Toole (12:34):
No, my, my PhD was in a cytoskeleton Spectre for blood cell. Yeah. And I avoided microscopy for as long as I could and then realized actually it’s quite good PhD before I realized that microscopy was actually a lot better than I used to use in the teaching labs or at school. Yeah. So when you went in to do microbiology biochemistry why, why did you choose life sciences in that case? What did you want to be at the age of 10?

Leong Chew (13:07):
When I, oh, that’s an interesting question. So I grew up in Malaysia, so there is not a lot of basic signs, especially when I was growing up. So the, I, I, I’ve always interested in life science. I’m always interested in biology. And then, so at that time, the only natural career path is, is going to medical school and I didn’t get into medical school. And so I was a little down and so I decided to come to United States to pursue my dream. And, and, and I decided to, to switch path because it’s, it’s actually extremely difficult to get into medical school in the United States, as a foreigner. And also unlike the British or the European system, you don’t go into medical school right out, right after high school. You, you, you have to go through the undergraduate program. And so I decided to go into biochemistry and first, and then when I arrived at the University of Wisconsin, I, I decided to also major in microbiology as well.

Peter O’Toole (14:17):
Okay. So you mentioned Malaysia, you send me some pictures. Oh, I presume it’s from Malaysias.

Leong Chew (14:23):
Yeah, that, that is my, what is this picture? That’s my hometown. This is the Northern part of my hometown, and it’s an island, it’s tropical island. It’s actually one of the top 10, most livable city in the world. And, and, and, and constantly rank top five as one of the top five places to retire. So hint hint and, and it’s called Penang and is one of the important post in, in, in the ancient spice route. And so that that’s together with Singapore, Panang is, is another important outpost spice route.

Peter O’Toole (15:02):
It looks very modern. There’s a lot of high rise, modern looking buildings here. And yet you also have

Leong Chew (15:10):
You, yeah. This is the, this is a a UNESCO world heritage site, actually, one of the highest concentration of UNESCO heritage sites on, on the planet. And so this is the colonial area. I’m not sure if you remember, there is a, a movie starring Jodi Foster and Chow Yun-fat I think it’s not the king and I or something like that. And that was completely filmed in my hometown.

Peter O’Toole (15:37):
That’s pretty cool. And you are obviously cuz it’s an island, you have an affection for the sea. I presume.

Leong Chew (15:43):
Yes, of course can, can get away from the ocean.

Peter O’Toole (15:49):
And you did tell me a bit, one bit of a street art, which I, is this in your hometown as well?

Leong Chew (15:54):
This is my hometown

Peter O’Toole (15:55):
As well. I, I, I thought this was really smart.

Leong Chew (15:58):
Yes. So Panang is also one of the most Instagram cities in the world. I think it, it ranked actually higher a New York city itself. So there are a lot of street artists and this particular one is actually create by Lithuanian artist. His name is Ernest Zacharevic. . And so he, he, one of the signature one of his signatures, if you wheel, is to always combine a real real item in this case, a bicycle with, with painting. And he’ll, he always liked the paying children. So you can clearly see that a, a, a slightly older sister and his younger brother as who are actually painted on the wall. And then riding a bicycle that is lean against the wall on, on which the, the painting was created. So it’s a combination of painting and a real object. Yeah.

Peter O’Toole (16:53):
And the bike you still there, whereas I’m

Leong Chew (16:54):
Sure actually, if it was the bike is still there. Yeah.

Peter O’Toole (16:56):
If it was in London, I’m not sure. So it would be,

Leong Chew (17:00):
And it is actually not locked secure. The bike is just lean on a wall.

Peter O’Toole (17:05):
So you said you’d like to, I presume you said you’d like to retire to Malaysia. Was that a hint in there?

Leong Chew (17:10):
Say that again?

Peter O’Toole (17:11):
Did you say you’d like to retire back to Malaysia?

Leong Chew (17:16):
I’m not sure if I will retire back in Malaysia yet, but that’s certainly an option.

Peter O’Toole (17:21):
So how did you find the move going from Malaysia to the US?

Leong Chew (17:27):
Very drastic. The Malaysia is, is a tropical country, as you know, my, my own town is only about 500 it miles away from the equator. So we don’t have seasons, so it’s constantly hot and humid. And the first day I arrived in Wisconsin that is the day when the university of shut down for the first time in 20 years because of a blizzard and everybody thought, wow, this guy’s not gonna make it. He’s gonna, he’s gonna pack everything up and go home.

Peter O’Toole (18:05):
You must have found that exciting surely. Oh,

Leong Chew (18:07):
I, I loved every second of it.

Peter O’Toole (18:10):
And what do you think of the weather now, then?

Leong Chew (18:14):
I just actually spent half an hour shoveling snow, so I, I I’m sick and tired of the white stuff.

Peter O’Toole (18:20):
Do you don’t like the seasons? I think they’re thing. Nice.

Leong Chew (18:21):
I love the season. I absolutely love the season is, is just that the we, we have been traveling snow quite a bit this season,

Peter O’Toole (18:28):
So yeah, but even just seasonal changes.

Leong Chew (18:31):
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I love it. Especially to fall and, and winter too, actually.

Peter O’Toole (18:41):
And you have another passion thinking of countries with Africa itself. This, this is actually why, why the passion with Africa?

Leong Chew (18:52):
I think the passion, my passion to Africa has to be attributed to one, one of the, actually one of our earliest advanced microscopy fellow. So this is actually a program that I have emulated from Jennifer Waters, with whom you have interviewed before, and which is due to train to, to provide a specific training program for people who aspire to become a, a, a, a director of microscopy somewhere to be able to own their, to be able to run their own microscopy center one day. And so I started this program and our very first fellow is Michael Reyka who actually came from South Africa and and sort of get me to focus more on a lot of the resource challenged regions in the world. And, and, and in a way, this is, this opened up my eyes to some of the blind spot that have had at, at the Advanced Imaging Center. And I think overall, our, even though our technology dissemination has been pretty successful, it has focused mainly on the developed world. And the more I look at the, the, the, the data, the more I look at the map together with Mike, and the more we realize that if you, if you make the microscopy a opportunity equally accessible, it, it will not be equitably accessed by, by all the scientists from all over the world. So in, in, in various regions of the world, you actually have to lend a helping hand. So in, in early 2020, we organized a workshop called imaging Africa. That is unique in, in many ways because we actually make it available to live scientists only live scientists in, in, in, in Africa. This is an all expense paid workshop thanks to the, the sponsorship of, of HHMI, the Moore foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and, and several others. And so we were there for about a week and workshop only has, has 24 openings. We actually receive more, more than 700 applications. Wow, this so that is a, a very strong signal that this is some, we have hit on something important and we need to do more about it. And, and, and I, I become extremely passionate about doing more in Africa. And, and so we, we have started something even bigger called the Africa Microscopy Initiative that also not only have the educational outreach elements, but also we gonna built in imaging center in Africa, again, model after the AIC where people can access the, the instrument via proposal submission, peer reviewed. And then if your proposal is successful, we can come to that imaging center and we will cover the cost of your experiment. We will cover the cost of your travel, and we will cover the cost of your lodging when you come come to that imaging center which will be housed in University of Cape town. And in addition to all that, we are also working with several other companies to try to create an instrument distribution program so that we can distribute some of the pre-owned instrument that are serviced up to, to, to the standard of, of the company. And then distributed in, in, in Africa. And this, this particular picture is actually a very interesting event. So this is actually a, an outreach event within an outreach event. So while we were in Cape town, running the imaging Africa workshop and, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been to Cape town, but in between the, the airport and the very ritzy area of, of downtown Cape town, you, you drive for miles and miles across this what do we call the township, which is the, the, the, the Relics of the, the very, very oppressive apartheid regime, right? So this is areas where they have, you know devised this, this racial engineering and social engineering programs that put all the non white people into this township. And a lot of those kids you know, grow up in this, this kind of township have very limited upward mobility but there is several youth groups that mainly made up of, of graduate students in Cape town. When they go into this neighborhood, talk to the local high school teacher and try to identify students with very high potentials and try to give them a helping hand, give, give them a chance to, to expose them to how to do scientific research and impact of scientific research and, and teach them social media skills so that they can actually tell their own story from township. So when we were there, we, we thought, well, since we have 24 creme de la creme, you know, young scientists that we have selected from more than 700 applicants congregating in Cape town to take this workshop what better role model can we find throughout Africa who are close to this, the, the age of this kids, and then, so we decided to work with the youth groups, and then we bring in, we brought in I think 20 these kids from, from, from the township. And so the get to talk to the, to the, the students at the workshop, as well as teaching international teaching faculty. And then we give them a backpack inside a backpack. There was this Foldscope that Manu Prakash developed. So this picture basically show you, the kids are folding folding the the, the full scope. So they, they actually, every single one of them get to take mic a little foldable, origami microscope back to their, to their home and share it with their friends.

Peter O’Toole (24:53):
I thought it was interesting. You, you mentioned that one of the things you were teaching them was with social media so communication, why is that so important?

Leong Chew (25:05):
I think it is important because when the local kids tell their own story or bring you know, the, the, the, the overall concept of how biomedical research is done and why is it impactful? Especially for, you know, various disease ridden region in Africa. They, they, they gain a good following and they gain a, a, a trustee audience rather than a foreigners coming in, trying to tell them about Western medicine. And, and, and more importantly, they grow up with a lot of the problems you know, how to deal with, with infectious disease, how to deal with crime, how to deal with the lack of upward mobility. And so, I don’t think you can find a, a better narrative to tell that story than, than those kids. And they’re very passionate, they’re extremely talented. So yeah, the frankly, the best candidates possible.

Peter O’Toole (26:05):
Yeah. So the importance of a, the, the importance communication and making it relatable to, to kind of help inspire and yeah. Get the next generation of scientists developed. You sent me a couple more pictures, so obviously you can see this,

Leong Chew (26:20):
Oh, this is the fun day. So this is after two weeks of ex pre hard work, trying to get the workshop running. And for the first time, and this is we were, this is the last day when we all the faculties, as well as the students were under 10 in camps bay in, in the Cape town, we, we have our last group dinner together

Peter O’Toole (26:43):
And finally one war, which was, yeah, so you were the Cape of Good Hope even I can read.

Leong Chew (26:51):
Right. So we have couple of the AIC members there is Satya, and there is Jesse then on the extreme left Klaus Hahn from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. So as you probably know, as a microscopist has developed quite a few frat sensors, especially on the P 32 GS, a P 21 GS. And so he’s actually one of the teaching faculty members as well. So we, we decided that right before the workshop starts, after we have done all the preparatory work we need a day of fun.

Peter O’Toole (27:26):
Yeah. And so how often do you plan to go over?

Leong Chew (27:31):
Say that again?

Peter O’Toole (27:31):
Will you be going over again yourself? Cause obviously you got training. Oh yeah.

Leong Chew (27:35):
I mean the, but will you, the, the, the second imaging Africa workshop was actually originally planned for the October of 2021 clearly that didn’t happen because of pandemic and, and I’m, I’m very sure that this year is gonna be delayed as well, but again, but we, we, we remain optimistic and we, we, we plan for October of 2022. So we we’re, we’re not giving up, we’re going back

Peter O’Toole (28:02):
And you’re still seeking different funders, different sponsors to come in with the others, cuz you, it sounds quite good. You’ve got a diverse set of sponsors, which actually makes it more resilient to change. But I presume you’d welcome more sponsors on this. Oh

Leong Chew (28:16):
Yeah. We, we, well, we, we always want to increase the the, the diversity of, of, of funding sources for sure. And it is good for sustainability is good for visibility. Yeah.

Peter O’Toole (28:29):
And, and, and I know the answers to some of these, so, but I, I think it is worth mentioning. You mentioned to start with that you would open the call out at AIC to start with people, to come to Janelia, use the equipment. And although it’s open, generally the bias would go to well develop wealthy countries that are coming in. How does the science compare when you get those from developing countries compared to the developed countries? Are they, are the scientists as good as they are

Leong Chew (28:59):
Over? Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And, and I, I wouldn’t compare them as to who is better. I would, I would compare them as to the the focus of research. The focus of research is, is, is slightly different. They are more focusing on, on infectious disease and also you know, environmental issues as well as the also agricultural signs things like that. Soil biology and, and, and, and, and, you know, issues such as that. But the, the, the quality of science doesn’t change. The one thing that is different and which actually prompted us to, to, to do more in Africa is that they, a lot of them do not have the necessary tools to generate preliminary data that we are looking for. And, and, you know, if you’re in the United States or in Europe if you need a confocal, you need a spinning disc this or any microscope, you will, you’ll get it, and you will generate a pro preliminary data without a second thought. And, and, but in Africa and in, you know, the India subcontinent and Southeast Asia, and, and sometimes even in Latin America that is not easy to come by. But the, the quality of science, the impact of science is, is the same.

Peter O’Toole (30:17):
I think that’s a really important message though. I think there has been always, a historic perception and I think that needs to be recognized and, and addressed as you’re doing, with training up as well, but to address the science, very worthy, as you know, anyway, we do quite a lot of work with collaborate across Africa who are leading the projects. We are just a tool to them in some cases, cuz again, we have the equipment, but they have the expertise. Yeah,

Leong Chew (30:49):
Absolutely. And, and I, I would love to, to, to, to find a way to collaborate with, with, with all the the, the initiative that you have, you have spearheaded in Africa. I

Peter O’Toole (30:58):
Think I’ve, I’ve not spearheaded it, others are spearhead it. I just, so I can’t take any credit for it

Leong Chew (31:04):
Still. We, we should work together.

Peter O’Toole (31:07):
So who, who in your, who in your career then who’s been your inspirational inspirations? Maybe that’s slightly different to who motivates you or what motivates you? So two questions coming in, maybe start with the motivation. What motivates you to you go to work and aspire to be the best and who have been your inspirations?

Leong Chew (31:30):
Believe it or not, what motivates me to go to work is actually Janelia itself. It, it really is a special place. And, and even until today, sometimes I walk down the grand stair, you know, coming in from, from the parking lot and coming down and, and I still pinch myself. It’s hard to believe that I work at Janelia, but

Peter O’Toole (31:53):
It’s a kind of a dream place to work. Isn’t it it’s that and EMBL are two of the,

Leong Chew (31:58):
Oh my God. Yes, absolutely. Right. There are several other, there are few truly, you know, magical places and signs in the world and, and Janelia happens to be one of them.

Peter O’Toole (32:09):
Yeah. What about your inspirations then?

Leong Chew (32:16):
Wow. That’s an, that’s a, that’s an interesting question. Who inspired me? Quite a few guess when, when I think when I was a postdoc, I, you know, being a cell biologist that, that there are quite a few of them who are now actually my colleagues in a way I, I call myself extremely lucky to be, be able to work with them. They kind of used to be my idols. Uman is one of them, Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, right. Eric Betzig.

Peter O’Toole (32:46):
I like the way you say they used to be your idols. So now you don’t care for them though.

Leong Chew (32:51):
Well, that’s not what I, yeah, those are, you know, a few of, of my heroes, if you will. Quite a few of them actually. And Gary Borisy who start to, he actually you know, sort of started my, my, my entire career in core facility who, who was the first one who encouraged me to, to go into core.

Peter O’Toole (33:20):
So you get very fortunate. You’re very, very lucky to be where you are. To be honest, I am all these inspirations in the community. Some quick fire questions I’ve got PC or Mac

Leong Chew (33:34):
I’m a Mac person.

Peter O’Toole (33:36):
Okay. So McDonald’s or Burger King?

Leong Chew (33:40):
No boy. Mcdonald’s I guess.

Peter O’Toole (33:45):
Okay. Malaysia or USA

Leong Chew (33:51):
Depends on what you’re asking, food Malaysia.

Peter O’Toole (33:57):
Okay. Prefer to live

Leong Chew (33:59):
Place to live. I would say Malaysia.

Peter O’Toole (34:04):
Thats’ OK, I’m just losing your American passport and you, you were gonna, you couldn’t win whatever way, if anyone’s listening to this, on that, that front, early bird, or night owl

Leong Chew (34:13):
Early bird, actually very early bird.

Peter O’Toole (34:16):
Go on. What time do you normally get up?

Leong Chew (34:19):
I usually get up at five and if it is in the summer, I start running at five 30 or so.

Peter O’Toole (34:26):
So what’s your distance when you run?

Leong Chew (34:30):
10 K during the week and maybe 15 K during the Weekends.

Peter O’Toole (34:35):
Okay. Yeah, I, I do too shorter to run, so 10 K and then a long run at the weekend as well. Yeah. All, what other sports do you do?

Leong Chew (34:45):
I kayak I actually also have an indoor roarer. I hike, I, I I don’t have a lot of opportunity to hike, but, but I, I love to hike whenever I can.

Peter O’Toole (34:56):
I think you, did you send me a picture of hiking? A picture of You?

Leong Chew (35:00):
Yeah. This, oh,

Peter O’Toole (35:04):
Not the best picture. Sorry. The way it’s come on to zoom

Leong Chew (35:06):
Come on. No problem. This, this is in Patagonia. I think this is the Chilean side of Patagonia Floresta [Inaudible] if I’m not mistaken.

Peter O’Toole (35:14):
Yes. And this was hiking in the snow?

Leong Chew (35:18):
No, this we my wife and I actually took a helicopter up. This in the distance right in the center is Mount Cook. So this is the, the, the south island of New Zealand.

Peter O’Toole (35:32):
And you, so you like hiking and you took a helicopter to the top that, that,

Leong Chew (35:36):
Yeah, I cheated. So

Peter O’Toole (35:39):
Definitely cheating. And just thinking about going off the quick fire, other hobbies, I believe that this is one of your hobbies, which is at violin.

Leong Chew (35:51):
This is a violin. This is a very old violin. It was it’s a French violin made by Nicola Gusta Shupui it is made in 1783, I believe. Wow. Yeah. So of course to put it in perspective, I think Beethoven was only 13 years old and this violin was made. So so this is, this is the, the glamor shot of the violin before I, we, we put all the chin rest and everything on It.

Peter O’Toole (36:21):
So this is your violin. Yes. Wow. And this is you playing the violin.

Leong Chew (36:30):
This is me playing the violin. This is at the Finish and Swedish border, I think. This is one, one of the islands on the arche PAG of Finland in the summer, the island is called Wester. So,

Peter O’Toole (36:47):
So cool. So how good are you? Okay. I’m presuming that very good. Been as you’ve got and really special historic violin, surely you can play it. Well,

Leong Chew (36:59):
I think, well, the funniest thing about the last picture was that that was actually a ticketed event that I was not aware of. So people actually bought tickets to hear me play without me realizing it. And at the end I was like, wait, why do people pay it, pay tickets to, to listen to me, that’s crazy. So I was there. I was in, in, in Turku in Finland teaching a, a, a microscopy workshop at the time. And then they say, well, you know, there, there is this venue that they, in the summer, they actually combine dinner and, and, and classical music recital, would you like to play? And I said, well, sure. Why not? And, and I just decided to go play and not knowing that it was a ticket at event. Wow. That that was luckily. They, they didn’t tell me until the end, because I would’ve, I would’ve freaked out.

Peter O’Toole (37:57):
So thinking about your evening meal, then what’s your favorite food?

Leong Chew (38:03):
Oh, so many Mediterranean food, Japanese food and, and Malaysian Curry.

Peter O’Toole (38:10):
Okay. What food do you not like?

Leong Chew (38:16):
I don’t, I I’m a foodie. I, I don’t think I have any food that I really don’t like much. I, I guess I don’t like food that are too oily. So I, I don’t eat a lot of meat. I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat a lot of meat.

Peter O’Toole (38:30):
That’s interesting. When I ask you McDonald’s or burger king, you hesitate. Does that mean you do McDonald’s

Leong Chew (38:35):
Once in a while when I’m desperate

Peter O’Toole (38:39):
Breakfast or dinner?

Leong Chew (38:44):
Lunch sometimes. Okay.

Peter O’Toole (38:47):
Yeah. Tea, your coffee,

Leong Chew (38:49):

Peter O’Toole (38:51):
Beer, or wine

Leong Chew (38:53):
Wine for sure.

Peter O’Toole (38:55):
Red Or white.

Leong Chew (38:57):
You usually white.

Peter O’Toole (38:59):
Okay. Any particular grape?

Leong Chew (39:03):
I like the, the wine coming from the ALSA area. So Resling the, and, and Pinot gre. Some of my, my, my favorite and, and I, the more I, I, I tasted wine the more I’m gravitating to, towards wine coming from the Southern hemisphere this days.

Peter O’Toole (39:22):
OK. And to accompany that cheese or beer cheese or chocolate, cheese, or beer go cheese or chocolate.

Leong Chew (39:29):
Can I say both?

Peter O’Toole (39:32):
I suppose you can, I’d be a bit crackers, but that’s what you have with the cheese.

Leong Chew (39:36):
I, I, I love both chocolate and, and, and, and, and Cheese

Peter O’Toole (39:39):
That’s. Fair enough. So, carrying on back back to your motivations, your inspirations, what’s been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced at work or in the work environment

Peter O’Toole (39:56):
Of your career so far? It

Leong Chew (39:58):
Depends on where depends on where you’re talking. Outside of Janelia when I was at Northwestern, certainly funding. Right. and, and, and, you know, as well as I do that, a lot of federal funding agencies, they keep funding hardware, but they rarely fund people. And, and, and not knowing that, you know, people is sometimes even more important than the hardware itself. It’s the expertise that make or break a, a core facility. And so this has this, this has, this has always been, been my, my, my challenge when I was at Northwestern is to, to get people to recognize that, you know, funding expertise is extremely important and, and NIH still hasn’t come around after so many years. And in a way I have to, you know, give, give funding agencies such as the Chan Zuckerberg initiative, a, a lot of kudos for, for recognizing that. And then at the AIC the big as challenge is to raise the awareness of, of opportunities such as the AIC. And I still remember very clearly when they asked me the same questions. When I interview at, at, at at Janelia, what, what do you foresee to be the biggest challenge of running the advanced imaging center? I said, if you build it, they won’t come. And they, they looked at me, you know, incredulously, but unfortunately it turned out to be true. You actually have to go out and convince people that there is no catch that this is real. It took me a good two or three years. I mean, that first two or three years. And just to run around the whole world, trying to convince people that, you know, there is no catch in this AIC model, and this is truly as good as it sound. It’s pretty much the been of my existence for a few years. That that was rough.

Peter O’Toole (41:58):
So are you a microscopist or a salesman?

Leong Chew (42:01):
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Peter O’Toole (42:05):
It is that hybrid role, isn’t it? It

Leong Chew (42:07):
Is a hybrid role in, in a way, even if you tell people they got excited, but they never take the extra step to, to, to apply. You actually have to sit down with them and talk to them about their, their, their, their project, what they’re working on, and then tell them, Hey, if you use this instrument, you can actually get this answer very, very quickly and quantitatively. And that is when the light bulb finally, they finally make that connection and the light bulb lit up.

Peter O’Toole (42:38):
And how long can they visit for

Leong Chew (42:41):
Two to three weeks, sometimes longer? A very important point is everybody thought that, well, a short visit also equals a one time visit, which is actually not true. AIC actually entertain a lot of return visits. In a way, two or three weeks is more than sufficient for a, a, a one round visit because you generate a lot of data. You have to actually go back and, and, and, you know, process it and digest it and think about it before you can do a follow up experiment. So we do, we do entertain a lot of return projects.

Peter O’Toole (43:16):
And of course there’s a lot of pre prep. There’s a lot of communication beforehand. So when they arrive, you hit the road running and they don’t, they’re not making terrible errors in the first week writing that off, I presume.

Leong Chew (43:27):
Yes, absolutely. Anything that doesn’t have to be troubleshooted in, in Janelia please don’t do the troubleshooting Janelia because there is enough troubleshooting to do at Janelia at the AIC

Peter O’Toole (43:40):
And what’s been the most fun. So they’re, they’re the challenges you’ve had to face. Yes. It’s been the most exciting, most fun time of your career.

Leong Chew (43:49):
I would say running the Advance Imaging Center because you actually get to see the cross section of science, global science, not just in the United States, but you can see how science coming from different areas has a different flavor to it. That is very different even though, even though they may be working on the exact same project, for example let’s say take, you know, infection of tuberculosis, for example, here in, in, in, in the Western world, you tend to study malaria. Tuberculosis was something as a disease by itself. Coming from Africa, people tend to study coinfection, somebody who has been that are HIV positive and at the same time infected by, by tuberculosis. And that changes the pathology and the biology of both diseases at the same time. And so they, they, they, the, even though everybody kind of studied the same thing, there is a slight slant to it that is different from, from regions to regions of the world. And you get to meet people, right. And you actually get to learn a lot of organism that I’ve never heard of before.

Peter O’Toole (44:54):
Yeah. To, to, to a degree. I, I tend to, it all boils down to what do they want to see? And what’s their floura Chromes.

Leong Chew (45:01):
Yes, exactly. And how deep and how fast. Yes.

Peter O’Toole (45:05):
So thinking about communication and the importance communication, how many, are you still struggling to get applicants to come in? Or are you heavily oversubscribed? How’s that now doing?

Leong Chew (45:19):
I think AIC is on the right track. It, it, it, we’re doing fine now. Proposals get coming in, and in fact, you know, just, just this week alone, we’re gonna have three or four technical consultation. So we actually provide an an hour long technical consultation. Before people submit the proposal just to make sure that, you know, we, we wanna maximize everybody’s success rate. And so yeah, the, the, the request for technical consultation continue to come in that I, I, I think the initial hump we, we have gotten over. So in a way that’s good.

Peter O’Toole (45:51):
And again, extending communication. I, I, my visit to Janelia was to the inception of Biogen north America, Bena for which you, I, I think you organized that inception

Leong Chew (46:05):
Of it. I, I didn’t organize that in inception. I organized a workshop during which the idea of Beni came about. And, and, and in fact, the, the, the very first meeting informal meeting of the, of the original members of the executive committee was, was conducted at Janelia during that conference in, in which you, you, you, you, you attended

Peter O’Toole (46:30):
Why is Beni so important

Leong Chew (46:33):
For many reasons? So if you look across the world many commun microscopy communities across the world have organized, right. Australia has clearly have a very, very well organized structure. The Europeans have Euro bioimaging but yet United States has arguably the largest microscopy community in the world. You know, with thousands of, of, of imaging center. And yet the, the, the community at the time was very scattered. We don’t have a collective voice. We don’t have a, an organization that sort of you know, pay attention to, to the, to the welfare, the career trajectory of core directors and to, to, to have a dialogue partner with various funding agencies, for example, that has a unified voice. And so it, it is extremely important for a community like this to, to sort of form a body that is well organized, where voices can be heard. And so we, we thought the time was right. Actually it was well past the time for, for us to, to, to get this or this community organized together. And, and it, it, that idea starts to percolate and it, and, and it becomes louder and louder within a two or three day period. During that conference that at the end, we decided that I, I think something has to be done. So

Peter O’Toole (48:01):
I, I, is it moving fast enough?

Leong Chew (48:05):
It started out a little slow because we, we, we certainly need to get funding. And in a way we, we Beni is, is, is, is very lucky. And, but in fact, well deserve as well. And, and we, they Beni finally is, is funded by the Chan Zuckerberg initiative. And so now the organization actually have the resources to, to do a lot of the activities that we have. We, we have been planning for quite a

Peter O’Toole (48:32):
While which, which is, which is excellent and actually really important. You mentioned earlier about funders paying for equipment, but not staff. And it is getting that political influence back to the funders directly, the big funders directly, and having that influence at that level. I think the UK is really receptive. So our research councils are so UKRI is very receptive. Ottoline Leyser was actually one of the guests on the microscopy. And, and she’s very engaged with the core activities, not just in microscopy, but many other technologies, but the funders attend our meetings. Now we don’t, they don’t just have our voice on some of their committees, but they also attend our meetings and listen to the community. And I hope, and I, I know that being as objective is to get there. It isn’t, it, it does take time and it needs yeah, tenacity going at it. And I

Leong Chew (49:29):
The vision and collaborate and, and, and, you know, this is a, it takes a village, right? It’s a group effort that everybody has to be involved

Peter O’Toole (49:37):
And the right network

Leong Chew (49:39):
And the right network and, and a lot of peer networks as, as well in a way is like, you know, another advantage of, of having Beni is that now the, the north American community actually can interact more, more, you know, in a, in a more organized fashion with, with the European counterparts, with, with Australian counterparts and, and elsewhere. And, and, and I think you, you will also hear that I actually, the Chan Zuckerberg initiative has already announced that there is now an African bioimaging consortium sort of a, Beni equivalent in, in Africa. And then there is also now a Beni equivalent in south America as well.

Peter O’Toole (50:21):
So hopefully we’ll hear from them at some point as well with Karen and Leonard.

Leong Chew (50:25):
Yeah, absolutely. You, you, you should definitely interview them

Peter O’Toole (50:29):
On board and CC where they’re going so more, so back to some more personal questions. I haven’t asked you book or TV.

Leong Chew (50:38):

Peter O’Toole (50:39):
Book, what are you reading at the moment?

Leong Chew (50:43):
I am reading I, so one genre that I actually I crazy about, and, and it’s just really weird is I actually like inter international espionage novels a lot probably because I, I travel a lot. So I actually, when you talk about this street and that neighborhood in various cities in the world, I kind of it. Oh, okay. I’ve been there.

Peter O’Toole (51:09):
So, so you travel the world under the guise as microscopy where as actually. You just want to be an international spy.

Leong Chew (51:16):
Yeah. Can we, can we cut this part out? No, I’m just kidding.

Peter O’Toole (51:22):
So what about your favorite movie?

Leong Chew (51:27):
My favorite movie, there are two or three. I there is a German movie that I really like. It’s very philosophical and, and it’s called a live of O the lives of others. That’s [inaudible] it came out, I think, in, in, in two, in the two thousands. I, I love that movie and it is about basically an Eastern European you know Stazi officer who just sitting there in somebody’s attic just listening to people’s conversation. And it, it started out with the, the, the couple that this guy, this officer was listening to and the guy’s a Pianist and he basically say that, you know, Stalin’s favorite piano work is Beethoven’s, but he will never let himself listening to it because that will give him compassion. And he may just change his mission. And so the the, the, the, the, the philosophical questions that was being probe in that movie was if you listen to music and novelly change your outlook, and this guy keep playing music and music over and over and over again, and it somehow affects the, the, the STAZI mindset as he was spying on them. So it’s a very interesting philosophical exploration of, of the effects of music. And then the other movie that I really like is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Peter O’Toole (53:02):
I’ve, I’ve, I’ve never seen it. I’ve only enjoyed one or two Woody Allen movies on the others. I think I’ve never got to the end without falling asleep. Ah,

Leong Chew (53:08):
Well, this one, Woody Allen is not in it. That’s fair. I’m not sure if that helps, but

Peter O’Toole (53:15):
Yeah, it’s not even necessarily. I dunno that movie’s brilliant. Others just haven’t ticked my box at all. So you like, that was a particular favorite of yours.

Leong Chew (53:25):
Yes. That I can think of right now.

Peter O’Toole (53:28):
And are you a mess or tidy person.

Leong Chew (53:31):

Peter O’Toole (53:32):
Yeah. I can tell that by your background, it looks very sharp. And, and what’s your favorite type of music

Leong Chew (53:40):
Classical and classical and jazz. I have to say

Peter O’Toole (53:45):
It’s never given despite the beautiful background and, and your violin and everything else. You, you could have been into something else. Who’s your favorite? Harald or Eric

Leong Chew (53:57):
Wait, who is my favorite? What composer?

Peter O’Toole (53:59):
No, no, no scientist. Harald Hess or Eric Betzig.

Leong Chew (54:04):
I’m not answering that question.

Peter O’Toole (54:10):
No, I’m not gonna get you into any trouble whatsoever. Am I doing this? I asked you what you wanted to be when you were 10 years old. What did you want to be when you were 25? 26?

Leong Chew (54:30):
How about I answer your questions when I was about 17, 18 years old. Yeah, yeah. Go when I was 17, 18 years old, my dream job was to be a, a, a, an orchestra conductor. That was like, I was all in. And of course, you know, being coming from an Asian family, that that’s a pretty firm no, very quickly from my father. Ain’t gotta happen.

Peter O’Toole (55:02):
Okay. So what would you like to be today? If it wasn’t a microscopist, what would you like to be?

Leong Chew (55:09):
If I’m not a microscopist? I would like to be involved in, in, in some sort of a job where I actually get to travel the world and be able to, you know, talk to scientists or it doesn’t even have to be life scientists just to scientists in general, to see what they, what they are facing and what I can do if, if I’m representing a funding agency, for example.

Peter O’Toole (55:36):
So you’d like to stay in science. You don’t wanna, you don’t wanna be a conductor anymore. You don’t wanna fly off to,

Leong Chew (55:42):
Yeah. Now, now that now that I’ve seen how, how musicians struggle and I’m not, I’m not a teenager anymore. So yeah, that’s a little bit of the, you know, reality sinking in, I guess,

Peter O’Toole (55:56):
And people are listening to this that may maybe musicians thinking, God, I don’t wanna be a scientist. You can’t get jobs in it. You travel around the world people don’t listen to.

Leong Chew (56:06):
And people now treating you like a public enemy. Right. And especially in the United States because of COVID.

Peter O’Toole (56:13):
So finally, cause we are coming up to the hour. What’s the next big thing in scientific research or microscopy take your pick.

Leong Chew (56:25):
I think you are going to see bigger and bigger and bigger role integral role that imaging probes will be playing in microscopy. And in fact, if you look back, you, you don’t even, you don’t even have to go back that far. Is even the, the 2014 Nobel prize for super resolution and, and pretty much, you know, all the techniques there play with probes the photophysics of probes to, to get the super resolution, right. And, and, and hence Nobel prize in chemistry. And, and so I, I think you’re gonna see that happen again and, and, and, and artificial intelligence, machine learning, and you’re gonna see a lot more of that. And I think we’re also gonna start marching towards you know, take imaging techniques that are label free that really start to pay attention to other signaling cues that cannot be easily imaged before such as biomechanical forces sugar Moy, for example, and, and things like that, that people have completely overlooked. Not because they are not important, but because there is no technology available to

Peter O’Toole (57:46):
And so is that the chemistry of the probes that’s going to move on? I manipulation of the probes

Leong Chew (57:54):
Manipulation of the probe, as well as imaging techniques for example, you know, okay. [Inaudible] based techniques and then less and, and less perta bit of technique to be able to study biomechanical forces things like that, just using, using, using, you know, refractive indices and stuff like that. Yeah, Absolutely.

Peter O’Toole (58:18):
We could talk about that one after, as well. And probes remaining organic, or do you think we’ll see more inorganics

Leong Chew (58:26):
Inorganic or organic dye, but, but not, but not genetically, but not necessarily genetically in co

Peter O’Toole (58:32):
Yeah. So Leon we are up to the hour. So thank you very much, Time flys. It really does fly. Thank you everyone for watching or listening. I do. Thank you. Very do remember to subscribe to The Microscopists whichever how your version channel you’re listening on. And actually, I think beyond threat, all of this has dropped notes to Harold Hess’s podcast. Eric Betzig podcast, Jennifer, you’ve been hearing about in her podcast. I should point out as well. Stephani Otte from Chan Zuckerberg, who’s funded so much of the research that you’ve heard about today. The UK funders Ottoline Layser and actually a shout out as well to Alison North with the Beni side on it as well with Kurt Anderson. So, yeah, go and go. Listen. Some of those past ones as be Leon. Thank you so much for joining me today. I look forward to catching up in person again, as soon as we can meet in person.

Leong Chew (59:25):

Peter O’Toole (59:25):
Thanks, Leon bye bye.

Intro/Outro (59:28):
Thank you for listening to The Microscopists, a Bitesizebio podcast sponsored by Zeiss microscopy to view all audio and video recordings from this series, please visit


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