Instrument grants lift research, student training to new heights
Researchers at SF State are contemplating new avenues of research with the help of two microscopes, enabling faculty and students to peer at material tinier than the width of a human hair. The instruments support a robust research program that provides unique experiences to students and faculty alike.
The high-resolution scanning electron microscope and the laser scanning confocal microscope, both purchased with awards from the National Science Foundation's Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program, allow the University's researchers to conduct cutting-edge science.
But perhaps more importantly, they ensure that SF State students get the top-level training they need to pursue their own research projects and plan for future doctoral degrees, said Andrew Ichimura and Diana Chu, the principal investigators for each microscope grant.
The two microscopes allow researchers "to probe systems at very small levels, and they're important to every university that does research," said Ichimura, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. "This is where advances in science are coming from now."
The MRI grants "are an incredible opportunity for institutions like us," agreed Chu, an associate professor of biology. "It puts us on par with large institutions in terms of the quality of the data we're producing, and it's very important for training our students."
Carl Zeiss Ultra55 field emission scanning electron microscope
The scanning electron microscope (SEM) helps researcher visualize very small particles, down to the vanishingly small size of five nanometers. At this scale, researchers across disciplines are finding plenty to see, Ichimura noted. The SF State electron microscope is being used to study everything from thin films, cancer cells, minerals used to refine geologic time scales, tiny features in ocean plankton and systems for removing elements such as arsenic and chromium from drinking water.
Benjamin Brezler, a graduate student pursuing a master's in biomedical laboratory science, used the SEM in a class taught by Ichimura and in his thesis research. He is studying differences between strains of bacteria that cling to plant roots and play a key role in the Earth's nitrogen cycle.
"It was invaluable to have access to this kind of microscope and gain experience using it," Brezler said. "The experiences I had in class allowed me to develop protocols for imaging the bacteria my research group is studying, and to produce beautiful images to demonstrate our findings."
Ichimura said he and Clive Hayzelden, the manager of the SF State electron microscopy lab, have trained undergraduates, graduates and faculty members to use the SEM, microanalytical equipment such as energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS) and a suite of essential tools for specimen preparation that were also funded in part by the MRI grant. "It's a lot of hands-on work, where we tie theory in with practical applications focusing on student specimens so that everyone can use it for their own research," Ichimura said.
Carl Zeiss LSM 710 confocal laser scanning microscope
The new confocal microscope replaces an older, manual model that was on the edge of becoming obsolete. "We had reached the limitations of the old instrument," Chu explained, "especially for live imaging."
In her own research, Chu studies how chromosome structure and their dynamic changes can influence the expression of genes important in male fertility. Her projects use the transparent worm and model organism C. elegans, tagging key proteins with fluorescent colors so they can be seen easily in it.
The new microscope allows her to capture the real-time activity of these proteins in a living organism, she said, which is like "the difference between understanding a football game by just seeing still images from the field or watching videos of the plays."
Compared to the old manual scope, "where we had two people jumping up and down just to change the filters," Chu joked, "everything on this new instrument happens at the push of a button. The images are so incredibly beautiful and easy to get."
Chu said Annette Chan, the director of the SF State Cell and Molecular Imaging Center, has provided critical training on the microscope for undergraduates and graduate students. Armbien Sabillo, an undergraduate physiology major, said Chan even "customized the last segment of my training by allowing me to bring my own samples and calibrating the scope's settings based on my needs."
Sabillo, whose research in the lab focuses on muscle cells in the embryo, has already published some of his work and has received several awards for his projects. "All of this would not have been possible without such beautiful images," he said. "Because of the sheer amount of data I have been able to generate using the scope, my interest in science continues to flourish."
Ichimura's co-investigators on the electron microscope include SF State researchers Mary Leech, Bruce Manning, Kwok-Siong Teh and Wilfred Denetclaw. The confocal microscope investigators include Ursula Simonis, Carmen Domingo and Laura Burrus.