State-of-the-art microscopes open up new worlds of research — News
In a lab at the Olin Science Center, a high-definition monitor displays a yellow oval object with two vertical blue lines.
What at first glance appears to be an enlarged pill is the embryo of a fruit fly, only a few hours old – the blue lines highlight the distinct pattern of gene expression. The embryo, carefully stained and mounted on a slide by biology major Eleanor McDonough ’22, is projected from a Leica DM2500 compound microscope, one of several in a new microscopy classroom in the Department of Biology .
Seeing such a small object like this with the department’s old equipment was unthinkable. But the new suite of state-of-the-art microscopes makes the impossible possible for all students at Willamette University, who will have the opportunity to perform graduate-level research and examine specimens in a variety of ways from of this fall.
The department purchased the microscopes – and plans to purchase another set of complementary microscopes – to make the classroom one of the first of its kind and an exceptional learning environment for students from a wide range of backgrounds. disciplinary studies, said associate professor of biology Jason Duncan.
“The classroom opens up a whole new world for students,” he said. “They will be able to see the microscopic world in ways they never imagined, and to do so in a very collaborative and engaging way.”
Build on a core competency
Microscopy is a fundamental skill in biology and essential for fields such as botany, anatomy and medicine.
For science majors, the capabilities of the classroom will enhance their appeal to future employers as labor demand for this education is high. But even freshmen with a vague interest in science will have a hard time not being impressed. “We hope that students who haven’t even considered biology will be so excited by what they see in this space that they will reconsider,” Duncan said.
Cells invisible to the human eye can be observed in exquisite detail with the new microscopes, which are also equipped with special filters to provide contrast or enhance or illuminate a specimen – students can tinker with it the same way they edit an image in Adobe Photoshop.
One of the microscope parameters, epifluorescence, allows students to observe structures inside a cell. Scientists have engineered proteins to emit fluorescent light, generating a range of colors that can be used to highlight structures in the tiniest cells and organisms. Under the right combination of wavelengths, fibroblast cells – the long, thin cells responsible for stretching the skin – reveal glowing blue nuclei, red mitochondria and green microfilaments.
Potential for collaboration on campus
The power of the new gear is not just what students can see, but how they see it.
Sudden observations can be immediately shared with the whole class, and a 4K ultra-high definition digital camera attached to each microscope allows students to take photos and videos. Although the Leicas cannot fully capture 3D or extra-large specimens, the biology department plans to upgrade software to create composite images of larger specimens in their entirety.
Nor will the classroom be limited to science majors. First-year students in introductory biology courses will have access to the classroom, and the department wants to open it up to other groups on campus — exercise and health science students could use the microscopes to study general anatomy, like cross-sections of muscle or other tissue, while art majors could use the space to create artistic images of biological materials, Duncan said.
Microscopy lies at the intersection of many disciplines. Understanding the optics of light and how it interacts with a specimen touches on physics, while observing and imaging specimens stained with fluorescent dyes requires knowledge of chemistry. Analyzing a digital image, made up of millions of pixels, requires a foundation in data science.
“Seeing the world through a microscope is also a pretty cool way to explore it,” Duncan said.