We are EMBL: Victor Armijo on instrumentation in supporting research
Victor Armijo, a mechatronics engineer at EMBL Grenoble, talks about his dream job, highlighted in EMBL’s exhibition ‘The World of Molecular Biology’
Originally from Mexico, Victor Armijo joined the instrumentation team at EMBL Grenoble in 2018. This team has been supporting structural biology research for several decades with technological developments and innovations, particularly by automating processes that are part of the scientific services researchers use.
In this interview, Armijo, who is helping develop an automated sample preparation instrument for cryo-electron microscopy, provides insights about his work in the team, shares life and career advice, and talks about how he has combined two hobbies by starting a YouTube channel.
Can you tell us more about your job at EMBL and what do you think is most exciting?
I’m a mechatronics engineer on the instrumentation team led by Gergely Papp at EMBL Grenoble. The term ‘mechatronics’ means that you are putting different engineering aspects together: mechanics, electronics, robotics, and informatics, all in a single package. Therefore, my work on the instrumentation team is to assemble equipment we develop, considering all these aspects. It’s a fascinating job because we are developing machines and technologies that don’t yet exist to solve problems and improve scientific research.
What’s best about working at EMBL?
The collaboration! As engineers, we know perfectly how machines work and what we can do with them. However, we need scientists to guide us in their needs, so we work closely with them. These exchanges are always very interesting. I’ve learned a lot about proteins, their functions, why they are so important, etc. It’s quite funny, considering that I failed biology three times in high school!
Can you tell us more about your current projects?
One of my most important projects currently is EasyGrid, an automated sample preparation machine for different microscopy technologies, such as cryo-electron microscopy, cryo-electron tomography, and X-ray nanoimaging. These kinds of technologies are relatively new for us as the instrumentation team at EMBL Grenoble has historically been very strong in automating processes for macromolecular crystallography and small angle X-ray scattering.
My work on this project has been to build the machine and test different methods for sample preparation. It’s a very delicate process as the researcher needs a very thin film of vitrified sample, between 50 to 150 nm thick, placed on a small copper or gold grid. Putting together a machine capable of doing this in an automated fashion was not trivial at all. My work involved a lot of research, technological development, and collaboration with research groups at EMBL Grenoble, Heidelberg, and Hamburg to test our prototypes, as well as at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, the Institut de Biologie Structurale, and the Centre d’Etudes Atomiques – CEA in Grenoble.
Video from EMBL’s interactive exhibition ‘The World of Molecular Biology’ featuring Victor Armijo
What has been your biggest career challenge thus far, and how did you overcome it?
One of the challenges in my work is the constant need to learn new things. Some of our projects involve domains I’m not an expert in, like optics or cryogenics, and because technology advances so fast, we need to keep our knowledge updated so that we can deliver state-of-the-art machines. It’s actually an exciting challenge, but its consequence is having to sometimes deal with impostor syndrome. As I have to develop new technologies, sometimes I might think, ‘Am I good enough for this?’ The best way I’ve found to deal with this is to look back at what I’ve achieved with the team.
At what age did you decide you wanted to be an engineer?
I decided I wanted to become an electrical engineer at quite a young age, around 11 years – but I didn’t know about mechatronics back then! As a kid, I’ve always been intrigued by electricity and by how things worked in general. You couldn’t tell me what a machine was used for without telling me how it actually worked. When I heard about mechatronics later on, I knew it was what I wanted to do. And here I am.
What advice would you give to budding engineers?
Don’t stop looking for the perfect job! There are not a lot of mechatronics jobs that really involve all the engineering aspects I described earlier; most of them are focused on one thing. As I really wanted to work in this field, I first started as a teacher in Mexico, so I could include all these aspects in my teaching. But I was always keeping an eye on job offers until I found this opportunity at EMBL Grenoble, to which I immediately applied! If you don’t find your dream job, don’t settle for something that doesn’t fulfil your expectations – just keep looking.
What do you do in your spare time?
I love mountains; I do a lot of hiking and biking in the summer and snowboarding in the winter – Grenoble is the perfect place for this! I also enjoy filming and video editing a lot, so I’ve combined my two hobbies to create a YouTube channel, Concepto Tierra, where I post videos of my trips around Grenoble.
You participated in a video project for EMBL’s exhibition ‘The World of Molecular Biology’ in Heidelberg. What was the experience like?
It was fun! I liked it not only because I’m into video production but also because I thought it was important to show what we do. Most of the time, engineers operate ‘in the shadows’ and people don’t really know what happens behind the curtains. So it was an excellent opportunity to highlight our technological developments and innovations to support scientific research.
Celebrating EMBL’s 50th anniversary
Pioneering tools that improve research for all
Scientific breakthroughs are often only made possible through innovative technological developments. And EMBL Grenoble’s scientists are extremely deft at technological improvements that – for example – make beamlines and synchrotrons work even better.
By collaborating with the manufacturer Arinax, researchers and engineers from EMBL Grenoble have helped commercialise pioneering instrumentation and automate the entire sample-handling process. The ability to adjust technologies to researchers’ needs is just one reason why instruments developed at EMBL are – and will continue to be – widely used by the scientific community.