5 Questions with CNSI’s Haley Marks
By Nicole Wilkins
Haley Marks is a project scientist for the Advanced Light Microscopy Lab (ALMS) at the CNSI at UCLA. She is a biomedical engineer with a specialty in nano-biosensor research, translational medicine, and optics education.
Since joining CNSI in 2022, Haley has served as a technical expert, providing advanced light microscopy training and services to ALMS users. Here she works on developing and optimizing ALMS’s existing super-resolution and high-speed optical methods, developing strategies and imaging tools for in vivo imaging, and optimizing and disseminating computational imaging techniques.
Haley has a passion for all things photonics, and enjoys 3D printing, materials science, and nanoparticle chemistry as well. She is also an avid skier, bread snob, and full-time cat mom. She was a past recipient of the 2014 Whitaker International Fellowship and 2018 SPIE Franz Hillenkamp Fellowship in Problem-driven Biophotonics.
We asked Haley 5 Questions about her unique career path that led her to UCLA:
1. Tell us about your work as a project scientist at the ALMS?
So here at ALMS we have a large collection of ‘toys’ – really advanced microscopy techniques – lightsheet, super-resolution, 2-photon, and FLIM systems all in one space. Now, these microscopes are not your average microscope – and they are all cutting edge techniques, and therefore relatively complex to operate. My goal is to make using these microscopes and interpreting the data less intimidating for our users – who come from all different backgrounds and have different needs, and get them excited about imaging.
For example a biologist may need help keeping their sample alive throughout the long laser exposures during imaging, where a physicist may need to monitor factors like magnetism or temperature while they image. I especially enjoy when people bring in difficult challenges or have been struggling to get that perfect image or are confused by their data, and we have to really put our heads together to engineer a unique solution for their problem. We are also a Leica Center of Excellence, which means we have a special insight into the industry side of microscopy development as well, and this creates a very symbiotic relationship where Leica can better understand their average user, and we have a better understanding of their products to best inform the users of limitations and possibilities of each scope.
2. How did your own past inform this work?
I’ve switched around a lot deciding exactly what sub-specialty I wanted to do, which I thought was a bad thing but turned out to be a very good thing now that I work with such a wide range of people. Biomedical engineering is a bit of a broad major, which can be a blessing and a curse, because it acts as a platform to a wide variety of fields, but you feel a bit like a Jack of all trades/master of none.
My one constant has been photonics – I have a motto that ‘photons are the new electrons’ and felt that regardless of what I did I knew this would be a booming industry, so I tried a few different things to see what I liked best. During undergrad I worked as an intern at a telecommunications company that made fiber optics for satellites – which seems vastly different from what I do now, but was the place I first fell in love with lasers, and also the first place I had an amazing mentor who really pushed me to continuously identify what I enjoy and keep pivoting towards it. Then during grad school I worked with plasmonic nanoparticles, and found that I actually enjoyed chemistry a lot more than I thought and wanted to merge my background in optics and nanotechnology. Finally for my postdoc, I worked at a hospital, which opened my eyes up to the immense number of opportunities to bring photonics technologies and benchtop biological discoveries into the medical application space. So its this mix of a little bit of optics, a little bit of nanoparticle chemistry, and a little bit of translational medicine that brought me here now to this very interdisciplinary space.
3. You have a unique background in science. Where do you draw your inspiration?
I’ve always been the curious type with a strong need to know not just how something works but ‘why’ it works the way it does. In science there is this glorious sense of gratification and relief that comes from figuring out the solution to a problem that has been driving you, and likely other scientists, absolutely mad for months.
Laurent Bentolila, our director at ALMS, has a Fermi quote on his office door that wonderfully encompasses the endless inspiration that science gives me: “If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.” It means you cannot go wrong! Science is the one place where failures can inspire curiosity even more so than successes, and there is something beautiful about that.
4. What are some of the projects you are working on at ALMS?
We have so many cool projects that walk through these doors each week it’s hard to pick just a few! We very regularly image cells and slides, but things get interesting whenever people want to image whole living organisms, bulk tissues like a mouse jaw (with teeth!), or engineered tissues from xenografts or artificial constructs. I also enjoy when physicists and engineers really want to push the boundaries of our capabilities, since this is what leads to innovation and enables us to provide better microscopy in the future, for example when we image materials such as semiconducting crystals or plasmonic nanoparticles. There is always this magical moment when they finally get the image that confirms their hypothesis or takes their research in another direction.
5. Where did your love of science come from and what advice would you give to other young female scientists?
I think I didn’t know I had a love for science until I was actually doing science myself. I had a knack for math, but until I got into labs, I didn’t really understand the many cogs of the scientific machine and how may cross-disciplinary opportunities exist. So my advice is to get into a scientific environment right away and watch people, watch their roles and responsibilities and think about where you would be happiest and what drives you to come back to the lab each day. Try out as many different things as you can while you’re young and don’t let yourself be siloed by your past experiences, that way you fully open yourself up to understand what you like, or more importantly, what you don’t like. People, and especially those who identify as women, may not think they are ready or qualified when presented with a new opportunity. But the reality is that the majority of people feel that way, and fewer people than you think actually hit that apply button. So in short, apply to things! And if you discover you don’t like it, don’t be afraid to leave too: science is a foundational way of thinking and these experiences will help you regardless of your ultimate career path.