Inspiring Scientists Making a Difference: Kathryn Fox

Making Flow cytometry approachable – one instrument at a time 

“We have gone from 'how do we see what we want to see' to 'how do we find meaning in the pile of data?'”

Kathryn Fox

Flow Lab Technical Manager, Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Kathryn started her journey in science as a biology major, and she liked courses that were in-depth versus broad. In graduate school, she was introduced to fluorescence microscopy and became an expert over time. People started coming to her for training and problem solving, which piqued Kathryn’s interest. When she realized this type of work had a career path, she chose to become an application scientist. Bringing her expertise in instrumentation to help a vast group of people is what inspires her to go to work every day.

Kathryn Fox
“I get to be an expert in a technology and teach other people how to apply that to their research.”

A farm girl trained as an application scientist, Kathryn likes to take things apart and put them back together with enhancements. Working in a flow cytometry core facility gave her the opportunity to indulge her love for instrumentation technology while serving as an expert, without having to travel as an application scientist. 

“I am a farm girl, so I like to take things apart and put them back together to make them better.”

She has a peculiar way of looking at instruments as big, complicated pieces of equipment that have lots of working parts and interconnected systems that can help answer multiple questions. She learned that scientific instruments could help solve so many problems. One of Kathryn’s goals is to make flow cytometry instruments in her lab accessible to those who need them to be successful in their research projects. Based on a variety of factors, such as the research subject and sample availability, she helps scientists choose the best instrument. Another objective is to help people make connections to move their research forward as efficiently and collaboratively as possible.

Kathryn is always excited about finding new ways to use and promote flow cytometry beyond what it is marketed to do. She often comes across complex research problems in immunology while helping scientists process their samples on flow cytometry instruments. Optimizing panel design is a common obstacle. For example, in one project she was helping a researcher with glandular tissue samples from various animals. There weren’t enough antibodies for rat samples available compared to human or mouse samples, so they came up with an idea to divide the experiment so the same fluorophore could be used twice. After optimizing the staining on test samples, they were finally able to analyze experimental samples successfully. Sometimes researchers want to study DNA content and protein expression simultaneously, which reduces choices for fluorophores. She has also been able to help researchers design protocols, choose suitable staining protocols and buffers so they could run experiments for DNA content and protein expression analysis simultaneously.

“We have gone from 'how do we see what we want to see' to 'how do we find meaning in the pile of data?'”

According to Kathryn, this explosion of data in high dimensional flow cytometry has also given rise to the challenge of data analysis in immunology. Weeding through the information to get the most useful parts takes a lot of time compared to simple four color experiments. She thinks that machine learning could be a potential tool to handle large and complex data sets to draw meaningful insights, however, it is also important to keep track of what is being learned. Fortunately, software programs for high dimensional data analysis are getting easier to use and more accessible. Kathryn thinks that data analysis tools and high dimensional analysis tools may explode (in a good way) in the next quarter century as that is needed to support advances in flow cytometry technology.

Kathryn spends part of her time on planning consultations and trainings with researchers who want assistance. It is a challenge to modulate the training content based on researchers’ current understanding of the instruments since they can range from novices to experts. She believes that Invitrogen Attune NxT Flow Cytometer requires less effort to get started and is easier to troubleshoot than other instruments when issues are encountered. Reliability of this instrument makes it ideal for the core facility, as the experiments are time sensitive, and downtime can result in wasting valuable resources.

Kathryn uses the positive energy she gets from successful projects as fuel to stay motivated to continue the more challenging projects. She believes in teaching methods that are effective and efficient to help immunologists do their research as opposed to a traditional step-by-step approach. Kathryn hopes to keep finding ways to educate researchers about the technology needed to do research and find ways to make it more approachable.

For Research Use Only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.

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