Spotlight on Yan Tsou, quality control scientist

Yan Tsou is part of the Crick’s Cell Services team, making sure that the cells coming into the Crick are exactly what they say they are, but she might be more widely recognised outside the Crick as a baker in the 2017 series of the Great British Bake Off. We spoke to Yan about balancing baking and science, and what it’s like to publish in The Lancet and the Bake Off cookbook in the same year.
Yan Tsou.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I’m part of the Quality Control team in the Crick’s Cell Services. Researchers will come to us with cell lines that aren’t from our cell bank and we do the tests to determine what they are and check they haven’t been contaminated with Mycoplasma or another cell line. 

Under the microscope, the morphology of cells can look similar, so species identification is very important. Nowadays, scientific journals require a certificate of authenticity for cell lines quoted in papers submitted for publication and that’s what we’re able to provide. 

Of course, it all depends on the current technology available. Ruth Peat and Chris Saunders – who head up the Cell Services team – are always listening out for the latest quality control techniques. For example, we recently introduced updated PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) technology, so we’re retesting some of our older cell lines. 

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

In one year, I was a named author of five published scientific papers (one in The Lancet) and a recipe in the Great British Bake Off cookbook. During the filming of GBBO I was exhausted pretty much all the time! I never wanted to give up my job for baking and I’m lucky that my manager is so flexible – that’s why I had to namecheck her in my recent Nature Career Column.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list.

Since I do so much home baking with yeast, it would be unwise to work with cell culture in case I contaminate the cells. It’s unlikely, but there’s still a chance!

I first started at the Crick as maternity cover (for my sister-in-law!) working on species identification testing within quality control. Since I do so much home baking with yeast, it would be unwise to work with cell culture in case I contaminate the cells. It’s unlikely, but there’s still a chance!

Funnily enough, this encouraged me to really refine my skills in quality control. So at the moment I’m learning a technique new to me called STR (Short Tandem Repeat). It’s an extension to our current way of testing human cell lines, which means we are able to differentiate between them. 

There aren’t many hard and fast rules with STR, it’s more about interpretation of the peaks on a graph versus the known profile, so I’m trying to get as much experience as I can. Human cell lines make up the largest proportion of banked cells at the Crick and the second largest is mice, so STR for mice will hopefully be our next project.  

What would it surprise people to know about you?

The sourdough loaves that led two scientists to fame on The Great British Bake Off

Find out more about Yan's work in her Nature Career Column.

Read it now

I don’t really like baking very much, I’ve just gone too far and now I can’t go back. No… I’m joking! I still love it, but I did hate it for a while after doing Bake Off. 

There’s so much secrecy involved, which meant I had to do a lot of inventive lying! Whilst I was practicing for the show, I was asked to make two wedding cakes – one for my cousin and one for my sister-in-law – and then I couldn’t go to their weddings because I was filming. Getting rid of all my practice bakes was tricky too. I gave bags and bags of teacakes to the homeless people around Kings Cross, and for my ramen illusion cake, I brought it into work and told everyone it was a cancelled order. It was enough to stop me baking for six months anyway!

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