As I enter the Microscopy Services Laboratory (MSL), a soft southern accent greets me: “Come in- want a cucumber? Help yourself!”
Dr. Bob Bagnell, the faculty director of the MSL, is an institution at UNC. Over the course of thirty years, he has developed the MSL from a set of electron microscopes in the Pathology Department to a full-featured microscopy core, offering numerous light and electron microscopy services in the basement of the Brinkhous-Bullitt building. Bob is an expert at microscopy, a natural teacher who never hesitates to help his patrons whether they are newbies or experienced users. His good nature combines with acumen for troubleshooting in such a way that even if your slides are worthless, leaving the MSL in a bad mood is difficult. You know how to fix your experiment, and almost feel joy from your failure, because you learned from Bob. His frequent offers of fresh bread also help.
At the beginning of 2016, Bob will retire from the university to pursue interests outside of the MSL. I asked Bob what he plans to do with his newfound time. Interestingly enough, outside of pursuing some old hobbies, he does not have any concrete plans. However, the way he delivers that news — the slightly defiant inflection of his voice, the liveliness in his eyes — suggests a man who has never liked answering that question. Because, in Bob’s estimation, surrendering to the journey of life is the plan.
Love of biology came early for Bob. Growing up as the son of a riverman in Eclipse, Virginia, the Tidewater region was Bob’s playground. Between collecting oyster crabs by the pint in his father’s shucking house and rummaging through the woods with his childhood friends, Bob spent plenty of time with nature. He first became conscious of his interest in biology in high school, an interest he decided to indulge in college at Elon. At the time Bob decided, “…[Biology] was more fun than [everything else], so let’s go do [biology]. And, looking back on it, I think that’s a darn good reason to do something.”
It was in college that Bob also stumbled upon his fascination with microscopes. While observing Elodea (a type of seaweed) during a lab class, Bob spent the whole period “transfixed” by chloroplasts dancing around the central vacuole in each cell. His fascination with biology and interest in the microscopic carried him through a Master’s Degree in Botany at Appalachian State University, his first experience researching with PhD-level scientists. He took a slightly circuitous route to his PhD, working a stint in a Physics lab at UNC while his wife attended graduate school in Library Sciences. While in the Physics lab, his main duty was fabricating crystals for inclusion on NASA space probes. The work consisted of heating silver chloride in custom crucibles, slicing the crystal into discs, and polishing the discs — all done in the dark, under a blanket of poisonous potassium cyanide gas. He didn’t work there long — after less than a year, Bob applied for his PhD, traveling all the way to Washington State University. There, he earned his PhD in Plant Ecology, but more importantly, further cultivated his interest in microscopy.
At Washington State, Bob’s dalliances with microscopes bloomed into passion. His thesis centered on identifying tree species by the shape of their pollen; if he could find a way to differentiate modern trees based on these data, pollen obtained from archaeological samples could be used to reconstruct the ecological history of the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, nobody was sure that pollen shape could be used for tree identification, and many attempts to do so failed until Bob spent a summer learning scanning electron microscopy (SEM) (among his first specimens: the inner layer of nuclear reactor cores). After learning the ropes of SEM, Bob spent many late nights imaging pollen and finishing his thesis, describing the differences between pollen of various species of Pacific Northwest pine trees.
After Washington State, Bob ended up back in Chapel Hill. But how? “My wife said, ‘We’re going back to Chapel Hill’, so we did… listen to your wife, they know what’s best” (Duly noted—C.G.).
And thus, the seeds were sown for Bob’s 40-year career at UNC. After convincing the UNC employment office to consider him for the “lowest of the low” research positions at the university, Bob took a position in the Pathology Department in the lab of Dr. Martin Krigman. Here, he put his electron microscopy skills to work imaging brains after heavy metal damage, eventually working his way through all of the Research Associate positions UNC offers.
After 8 years of working for Dr. Krigman, “a miracle happened.” The Pathology Department owned many scanning and transmission electron microscopes, and their caretakers all left at once. Bob, still employed in the department but looking for a change, volunteered for the job. He would manage all of the microscopes himself, while allowing others to use the microscopes in exchange for money — the skeleton of a core facility. The department heads agreed, and in 1983, the facility that grew into the MSL was born.
Over the course of thirty years of microscope wrangling, Bob’s responsibilities stayed largely the same. He started out responsible for microscope maintenance and facility budgets, and continues to manage those aspects. He teaches new and experienced users about microscopy, whether formally through his graduate-level microscopy class, or informally during daily interactions. If a researcher comes to him with a difficult project, he directly assists in experimental design and implementation of microscope techniques, which he has enjoyed doing his whole time as MSL manager. He also keeps the microscope selection up to date with what researchers desire, and in this particular area, Bob has witnessed many changes in the MSL. When he started, electron microscopy was king. Modern usage is much different- fluorescence microscopes now take up the majority of space in the MSL. Staffing also expanded over the years, with the addition of analyst Vicky Madden in 1987 and research assistant Kristen White in 2013. Bob counts himself lucky to work every day with such talented, amicable people — after all, when your co-workers are excellent, it makes coming to work every day that much easier.
While interviewing Bob, one thing I learned about him is that he does not make plans. Given a set of choices, he simply identifies what it is he wants to do, and then he does that thing (anyone who has ever thought about their career path knows this is much easier said than done). This is not to say that he is forever chasing whims; rather, he knows his passions and uses them as guidance. Remarkably, the word “should” was never brought up when Bob was discussing his professional and personal choices. To me, Bob serves as a stellar example of the success one can have when “should” is discarded. The attitude Bob brings to his science—exuberance borne of a life lived deliberately—will be what I (and, I suspect, many others) miss most when he leaves. Bob will be replaced on a technical level; but, shoot, how do you replace a guy like Bob?
Various style manuals decree that one should end an article like this with a quote from the subject. I’ll leave you with this, about what Bob will do next:
“… I’ve been really lucky that things came along when they needed to; I’ll just keep an open mind and see what happens next.”
An immense pile of thanks to Bob Bagnell for agreeing to let me interview him for this article and for being an excellent teacher through the years. Also, thank you to Vicky Madden for providing pictures of Bob through the years.
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This article was co-published on the TIBBS Bioscience Blog.