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Biology Student Research Reaches New Dimension

Biology students Shaughna Szymanski ’11 (left) and Kelly Noble ’11 watch as Dr. Matthew Temple reviews the details of setting illumination on the department’s new optical-sectioning microscope.

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by Matthew Temple

"Seeing is believing” has now taken on new levels of meaning in the biology department at Nazareth with a new microscope that “sees” in 3-D. I’ve been teaching Nazareth students how to look at cells through a microscope since 1984. And since 1984, I’ve often had to apologize to them because we know that cells actually have three-dimensional shapes—as spheres or cubes or even blobs—but under the microscope, those cells are often flattened in order to be examined. It’s like the difference between looking at a fully inflated soccer ball and one that has been deflated into a flat and distorted caricature of its former self. But at Nazareth, this is now no longer the case.

Last summer, the biology department acquired a microscope that can “see” into a cell in three dimensions and that enables us to appreciate how cells package vital components within their spaces. Technically, this is called an optical-sectioning microscope, because it takes finely focused pictures of up to 50 slices of a cell from top to bottom. Those slices are then compiled by a computer into a three-dimensional rendering of that cell. Furthermore, different components within a cell are literally lit up by fluorescent dyes, which can make DNA (the genetic material) glow a brilliant blue, fat droplets (cells have to deal with fat, too) a vivid green, and structural fibers a deep red.

Look at the picture produced by Kelly Noble ’11, one of three senior biology research students to use the new microscope. The red strings are actin filaments—a kind of bungee cord—inside cultured mouse cells. The blue ovals with bright spots are the DNA-rich nuclei within each cell. Kelly’s work suggests that actin has a unique shape around and within the nucleus. Shaughna Szymanski ’11 used this microscope to explore how mouse cells store excess fat, while Jessica Reeves ’11 showed that cells develop unusual nuclear shapes in response to a potent chemical. Their work would not have been possible at Nazareth even a year ago. Better yet, their work provides a solid foundation for students and faculty at Nazareth to use this new microscope to its fullest capacity in laboratory classes and in collaborative research.

The idea for getting this kind of microscope at Nazareth started years ago, on a sabbatical. One of many great things about teaching at Nazareth is the opportunity for a sabbatical every seven years. So far, I’ve had three sabbaticals: each has involved at least a semester of research at the Jackson Laboratory, a world-class genetics research institute in Bar Harbor, Maine. For a geneticist who wants to learn the latest techniques and work with some of the greatest researchers, the Jackson Lab is the place to go. My last two sabbaticals gave me the opportunity to use those microscopes that can see inside cells in 3-D. This technology was literally an eye-opener for me: I could see inside the nuclei of cells (where genes are) in a radically different way. At “The JAX,” as it is called, I watched chromosomes in trouble in mutant mice and looked at a protein that seemed to hold certain genes close to the wall of the cell’s nucleus.

Using these sophisticated microscopes made me wonder how my students at Nazareth could see cells this way as well. Early in 2010, Deborah Dooley ’75, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, asked science faculty for suggestions for equipment for the new Integrated Center for Math and Science—then only on the horizon but now under construction. I suggested an optical-sectioning microscope much like the one I had used at the Jackson Lab. Dean Dooley found the funds for it, and Nazareth’s Information Technology Services provided the computer that runs the microscope and produces its 3-D images. By August of last year, the new microscope and its computer were ready for our cell biology and senior research students. And by April 2011, Kelly, Shaunghna, and Jessica had used it to describe the shapes of DNA, fats, and protein filaments inside cells in brilliant color and accurate detail.

As far as I can tell, few students in other undergraduate biology departments have such free access to such a powerful instrument. Even better, for all of its complexity, it is a reasonably straightforward instrument to operate and maintain. After a little training, my students quickly mastered it and taught me a few new tricks for using it by the end of their research projects. Its power and the images it produces stimulate students and faculty to design innovative projects to explore the spaces inside cells. Using this kind of sophisticated instrument enhances the resumes of our students as they apply for graduate school and research positions. In the short time we have had this exceptional microscope, it has promoted excellent student research with our biology faculty—and our students have the pictures to prove it.

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