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Making research happen

Denise McLean is a senior technician with the School of Life Sciences and works in Nottingham’s world-leading Nanoscale and Microscale Research Centre. She also finds time to inspire young people, raise the profile of women in science and celebrate the Caribbean community.

When celebrated micro artist Willard Wigan MBE was invited by Denise McLean to work with her on a project bringing art and science together, it was a perfect match. The sometimes unexpected beauty of our world when viewed at micro scales enthrals both of them, and they are both dedicated to capturing these insights with painstaking commitment to detail.

More of Willard and their collaboration later.

Denise trained in histopathology, the study of diseased tissue. After working for the NHS, she joined the University. Twenty years later she is a leading light among our technicians, the ‘unsung heroes’. Without the skill, dedication and can-do attitude of Denise and her colleagues, much of the University’s world-leading research would simply never happen.

For Denise, her career has been one of continuous development and fresh challenges, enlivened by an infectious passion for sharing science with young people and communities.

“I’ve been blessed,” says Denise. “I work in an area that I thoroughly enjoy. At times it’s challenging. Every researcher wants to answer different scientific questions. With the expertise I’ve gained here, I can modify procedures to answer these – and give them some really great images to go away with.”

Denise is based in the School of Life Sciences, but her expertise is in demand across the University. At the Nanoscale and Microscale Research Centre (NMRC), her world-leading imaging of nanoparticles is crucial to the design of drug delivery systems for the School of Pharmacy. In the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, Professor Paul Williams relied on Denise’s work with the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to establish how bacteria behave on different coatings as part of a trial of bacteria-resistant material for catheters.

Experience and insights

Denise leafs through her project book: “There is a group that is studying obesity and diabetes, and together, we’re looking at brown fat in cells. Over at the Queen’s Medical Centre, I do plenty of work with Ophthalmology, looking at bacterial infection in the eye. Here at the NMRC, I carry out commercial work on behalf of clients; for example, I produce images of hair samples. I’ve worked with plant scientists, the vet school…and supported brain studies for the School of Psychology.”

The University’s new Breast Cancer Research Centre also offers the prospect of supporting further research.

“The projects are really varied; that’s why I’m still here and why I still enjoy it after all these years.”

Such experience and insights made Denise a natural choice to represent the Faculty of Science’s views in drawing up the University’s Technical Strategy.

She is also excited at the prospect of training up on a new system, the 2100+, which has a formidable array of detectors for elemental mapping of new materials and cryo-electron microscopy. For Denise, it is another welcome opportunity to enhance the University’s capabilities and partnerships.

"The projects are really varied; that’s why I’m still here and why I still enjoy it after all these years"
Denise McLean

“Science can be fun,” Denise says. She is also a STEM ambassador and has contributed to both the “unsung heroes” campaign celebrating the University’s technicians and the Government’s #NotJustForBoys promotion of women in science.

She loves working with young people, from demonstrating biological photography to MSc students, to supporting widening participation events with schools.

Denise is also working with the Caribbean Legacy Project, which is planning to commission a tribute at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to the civilians of the Caribbean who supported Britain during the two World Wars.

Denise has invited project members to the University to give talks to the black and minority ethnic community as well as staff and students. Denise also uses her own talks on the role of women in science to highlight the project.

Turning back to her collaboration with Willard, Denise is excited at the prospect of what lays ahead.

A huge admirer of Willard’s exquisite miniature artworks, Denise invited him to visit the NMRC, where she demonstrated how the Focused Ion Beam instrument could be used to write a tiny message to complement his work (the technology was used to write a congratulatory 90th birthday message for the Queen…on a corgi hair).

“I’m interested in projects where science meets art and my collaboration with Willard may perhaps feature at Nottingham Lakeside Arts,” said Denise. “It will also be a fabulous opportunity for more outreach work. Watch this space!”

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