To acquire wisdom, one must observe

New developments with Brandeis’ microscope facilities

Microscopes play a pivotal role in uncovering key biological discoveries by allowing scientists to visualize structures that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye. Recently, the Brandeis Light Microscopy Facility and the Electron Microscopy Facility have had a number of updates in staff and inventory. In an interview with The Hoot, staff and faculty members from the Light and Electron Microscopy facilities detailed new plans, including a novel course about microscopy that will be offered during the spring 2024 academic semester. 

Andrew “Andy” Stone recently joined the team as the Light Microscopy Facility Manager, where he is responsible for training researchers seeking to use the microscopes, maintenance of the microscopes, administration and billing. Additionally, Stone provides guidance to researchers about best practices for sample preparation and optimizing imaging settings. “Core facilities are essential both for the sharing of expensive resources and as centers for education. Science is inherently fast-paced and we are constantly trying to keep up to ensure Brandeis has the tools to compete on the world-stage. As a newer addition to the team here I’ve been incredibly impressed by the breadth, diversity and quality of the microscopes we have available and I look forward to seeing the facilities grow and seeing how our microscopes can help answer the all important questions of our researchers,” he shared.

The other members of the microscope facilities include Professor of Biology Avital Rodal, who is also the faculty director for the Louise Mashal Gabbay Cellular Visualization Center, or the Electron Microscope Facility. Rodal co-directs the Light Microscopy Facilities with Associate Professor of Biology Steven van Hooser. Additionally, Berith Isaac is the manager of the Louise Mashal Gabbay Cellular Visualization Center and advises users on sample preparation, data-recording and analysis and takes on other administrative roles. Amanda Tiano is an Associate Research Scientist at Brandeis who works in the Electron Microscope Facility to assist users on their day-to-day work and with training. 

Brandeis recently purchased several new microscopes that offer unprecedented visualization of microscopic structures. The Stimulation Emission Depleted (STED) microscope was recently purchased and installed at Brandeis this past August, and is the newest light microscope at Brandeis. Due to the diffraction of light reflected from a sample, there are limitations to the structures that can be visualized in standard light and fluorescent microscopy. Stefan W. Hell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 for his work on developing STED microscopes that are capable of visualizing structures smaller than this limit via ultra-high resolution fluorescence microscopy. STED microscopes utilize two diffraction patterns: one beam excites fluorophores present in the sample, and the other cancels out fluorophore emission to reduce “noise” around light emitted from a structure. “Most scientists refer to the annular shape of the light beam on the STED microscope as a ‘donut,’ but we are going to go with ‘bagel’ for the Brandeis microscope!” the team joked. 

The team also shared that they recently purchased Thermo Scientific’s new Tundra-Cryo-TEM microscope. Transmission electron microscopy relies on many of the same basic principles of light microscopy; however instead of light, these machines use a precise beam of electrons to visualize and magnify the sample up to many thousands of times larger than their original size. Since the wavelength of an electron is much smaller than that of light, the resolution of the image is many orders of magnitude greater than a light microscope. One advantageous feature of the Tundra-Cryo-TEM microscope is that it is user-friendly and can allow novice users to quickly learn cryo-TEM imaging, which often involves difficult sample preparation, the staff explained. 

Another class of microscopes at Brandeis are resonant scanning two-photon microscopes that enable the visualization of fluorescent proteins or indicators at larger depths into structures like the brain. “We use these microscopes to imagine the activity of dozens or hundreds of individual neurons [with calcium indicator proteins] or to observe the anatomy of individual neurons [with fluorescent marker proteins]. These microscopes require specialized training for animal work,” the team shared. 

In total, there are 11 microscopes that were funded by various mechanisms, including funding from grants and combined purchases from principal investigators and donors.

In the spirit of educating the Brandeis scientific community on proper microscope usage and physical principles of microscopy, two PhD students at Brandeis will offer a one-time course about microscopy this coming spring semester called “BIOL 82a – Seeing Inside Cells: Using Microscopy to Visualize Cellular Dynamics.” The instructors, Emma McGuirk Bain and Anne Silveira, won the University Prize Instructorship award which allowed them to teach an upper-level course related to their field of research. 

“This course was designed to teach students how to think about new and exciting biological and neuroscience research questions through the lens of different microscopy techniques available to them at Brandeis and beyond. While discussing the principles of how different microscopes work, we will also dive into scientific literature to teach students how to interpret microscopy data, design experiments and create and communicate new ideas in the form of a sales pitch. Students will also have the opportunity to tour the new microscopy facilities at Brandeis and witness some of the techniques we learn about in class in action,” McGuirk Bain and Silveira wrote.

In anticipation of the upcoming engineering major at Brandeis, Rodal noted, “Microscopy is one of the main techniques used by our NSF-funded Materials Science Research and Engineering Center … which is one of the inspirations for the Engineering program. We anticipate that some of our new Engineering faculty will use the core facility in their research, develop new microscopy techniques and incorporate microscopy as a tool into their teaching.” 

Access to these microscopes play a fundamental role in answering research questions across labs at Brandeis. “The phrase seeing is believing rings true for a lot of scientists. We are always looking to see something. Bands on a gel, peaks on a graph, or in microscopy we want to reveal the beautiful structures that we are imaging. Microscopy is fundamental to a lot of research in the natural sciences and as such appropriate training and understanding is important,” Stone concluded. 

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