Rebecca Thompson

Favourite Thing: Is to look at proteins and cells using electron microscopes! It amazing that we can see such tiny structures, and learn so much about how they work.



Knowles Hill school (Now Newton Abbot College) 2001-2006, Torquay Girls and Boys Grammar School 2006-2008


BSc Molecular Biology, Cardiff University. PhD Structural Biology, University of Leeds.

Work History:

Jane Shilton shoe shop, Lloyds TSB, HSBC.

Current Job:

Cryo electron microscopy scientist


University of Leeds

About Me

Hi, I’m Rebecca, Becky, Bex (depending on how much trouble I’m in).

I’m 26, from Devon, and currently live in Leeds. I work at the University of Leeds as a cryo-electron microscopy scientist (I’ll explain that a bit more in a bit!). I live by myself in my lovely flat (I’m a tiny bit of a neat freak!), not far away from the University.

Leeds is a great place to get outdoors and go hiking running and cycling, I try and get out and about when I can. I like a challenge, I climbed Kilimanjaro a couple of years ago, and am off to Peru later this year to do some more high altitude hiking as my sister is currently working there!




My Work

I am a structural biologist.. I use electron microscopes to study parts of cells, and proteins inside cells.

I use the most powerful microscopes in the world, electron microscopes, to study the protein machines that make life work.

Imagine you were a giant, so you could touch an aeroplane cruising at 30,000 feet. An average cell in your body would be roughly the size of a cup of tea. Inside these cells, your mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, would be about the size of an ant. And most of the protein machines that drive every process in your cell would still not be bigger than the width of a single hair. Hopefully this gives you an idea just how small these protein machines are!

Using electron microscopes we can directly look at these proteins. Using the best microscopes, and cutting edge computer processing methods, we can now work out what these protein machines look like, right down to each amino acid building block, and even each atom.

My favourite thing to look at in the microscope is viruses. The ones I look at usually have a protein shell around the outside with beautiful symmetry (they are icosahedrons). We are starting to look at protein machines and viruses with medicines (drugs), or antibodies bound. This is the beginning stages towards using electron microscopy to make better medicines, very exciting!

I work with a fantastic group of people. This photo was from last years christmas party where we all dressed up as elves and we convinced the boss to dress up as Father Christmas! myimage6

My Typical Day

There is no such thing as a typical day..

One of the best things about my job is that its so varied! Electron microscopes are pretty specialised pieces of kit, so I help scientific researchers from across the University of Leeds, other Universities, as well as people from industry like pharmaceutical companies, to use these machines in their research. This means I work on tonnes of different projects (I have 20 on the go at the moment!). This keeps me seriously busy.. One day I might be looking at a cell, another day lipid ‘bubbles’, then a dangerous human virus. I love the variety! So most of the time, I’m preparing samples for the electron microscope, which involves messing around with liquid nitrogen (makes great ice cream too), or using the microscopes.


Once we have the data, I mostly spend time on the computer processing the data. This is a lot of fun, working out the structure of the thing you are looking at! Because this is pretty desk based, we have a LOT of tea breaks. I counted today, I had 10 pint sized cups of tea. I have a problem.

At the moment, I’m also spending a lot of time shopping for new equipment, and writing instruction manuals and guides how to use microscopes, and what to do with the data they produce.

One of my favourite things to do is take science out of the lab to museums and school events! I usually run 3 events a year. Here is me doing some chemistry (making nylon fibres) at the University of Leeds Discovery Zone, where pupils can come along and see all sorts of cool science myimage1.

Here is a pipe cleaner model of a ‘neuronal’ (brain) cell network that we made at Leeds City Museum science fair this year. This was such a fun event! Two of my favourite things, science and arts and crafts! myimage4

What I'd do with the money

I would organise tours for local school pupils around our brand new multi-million pound electron microscopy facility.

The University of Leeds and the Wellcome Trust (a very cool charity who funded my PhD, and this page!), have just invested £17 million pounds in brand new, state-of-the-art electron microscopes, and a brand new facility to put them in. This means we are going to have one of the very best facilities in the world to do this kind of research! You can read more about that here ( and follow us on twitter @Bex_16 and @Astbury_BSL

I’d love to win the money as I could organise events for groups from local schools to come and see the amazing-ness that is these microscopes. Groups would be able to come into the lab and see how we go from a protein in a test tube to seeing it in the microscope, and even get a chance to drive one of the machines!

Here is a before picture, and an artists impression of what the main microscope room will look like once its completed in September! The microscope room is a special design which lets us work with dangerous viruses and other hazardous biological material, without the risk of it harming the scientist using the microscopes, or escaping into the wider world. myimage5

We have two new amazing electron microscopes arriving. The build and installation of each microscope is so complicated it takes months. When they are built, they are each over a storey tall. Each microscope needed its own lorry to be delivered they are so big! myimage7

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Competitive, organised, enthusiastic (my co-workers chose these!)

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Depends on my mood, perhaps Frank Turner?

What's your favourite food?

Triple layered sandwich with white bread, salad cream, cheddar cheese, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, marmite and salt and vinegar crisps. Or sushi.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Climbing Kilimanjaro!

What did you want to be after you left school?


Were you ever in trouble at school?

Quite often, normally for talking too much.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Predictably, science.. Although I loved history too.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Probably not the best, but funniest… I accidentally dyed my hand blue with a week during my undergraduate degree. The best? Travelled abroad to scientific conferences, meet some of the worlds leading scientists, and tell them about your research!

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

My mum and dad, who always encouraged me to ask questions and be curious

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I would love to be astronaut (is this cheating, as its a sort of scientist?), if not probably a gardener (bit random I know, but I love it!)

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Ooo tricky! 1) To be able to speak in all the languages in the world- wouldn’t it be amazing to turn up anywhere in the world and have a conversation with the locals? 2) To be ridiculously fit! I go to the gym 3-4 times a week and it would be great for those gym sessions not to be painful.. 3) To have more time, because there are too many interesting things in this world to learn in one lifetime.

Tell us a joke.

Why does everyone hate electrons? Because they are so negative! (Sorry…)

Other stuff

Work photos:

This is me sat at my desk. It took be 30 minutes to get it looking this tidy.. myimage2


This is my boss, Dr Neil Ranson (Director of Electron Microscopy) working hard! myimage3