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College of Arts and Sciences home to new Electron Microscopy Center

Nov. 6, 2013

The unassuming, fluorescent-lit basement corridor outside Simon Hall 032 in no way screams “INSIDE MY DOORS IS A $1.7 MILLION MICROSCOPE.” 

Electron Microscopy Center

Andrey Malyutin, a graduate student at IU Bloomington, works with a large imaging microscope that allows him to conduct research to better understand how viruses assemble. | Photo By Chris Meyer

In fact, the room emits more of a whisper.

“You probably didn’t notice as you walked through the door, but this room is a lot quieter than out there,” said David Gene Morgan, the research scientist who works most closely with the three-ton, 15-foot tall, 300,000-volt microscope -- one of just three similar machines at American universities.

Morgan told visitors from Inside IU Bloomington that the room’s sound paneling helps prevent the microscope from vibrating, interfering with research.

In addition, the room’s floor is physically cut away from the rest of the building as another way to minimize such vibrations.

“In principle, you could drop a one-ton weight across the hall and this room wouldn’t vibrate too much.”

Morgan oversaw the installation of the microscope, known as an intermediate voltage transmission electron microscope (TEM), more than five years ago.

On July 1, 2013, the lab merged with IU Bloomington’s other electron microscope lab, in Myers Hall, to form a core facility called the Electron Microscopy Center within the College of Arts and Sciences

A new core facility

The new center is overseen by faculty director Roger Innes, the former chair of the Department of Biology, and staffed by Morgan, Barry Stein and Gavin Murphy, the staff director. 

The lab where Stein spends most of his time, Myers Hall 040, contains two much smaller electron microscopes. One of these is a 100,000-volt TEM, and the other is a 30,000-volt scanning electron microscope (SEM).

Example images from the three EMC microscopes.

Example images from the three EMC microscopes. | PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE ELECTRON MICROSCOPY CENTER.

“It’s easy to handle,” Stein said, standing near the 100,000-volt microscope. “Choosing which of the microscopes to use (100,000- or 300,000-volt) is like the difference between a giant sledgehammer and using a small hammer for other tasks.”

Researchers often analyze samples using one of the smaller microscopes before deciding which ones to further examine using the larger, more powerful instrument, he said.

All three microscopes are used for projects from the IU Bloomington campus in the areas of biology, new physics and chemistry -- from examining how fruit fly eyes develop to analyzing life cycles of viruses and other parasites or examining small, metallic particles.

All of these projects help pay for the upkeep of the equipment, which runs to well over $100,000 per year. View the current fee structures for use of the equipment and staff assistance.

System-wide resources

The scanning microscope has a larger chamber than many similar microscopes. "The microscope is old, but large -- it's quite unique in that capability," Stein said.

Researchers from IU’s Stone Age Institute have used it to find forensic information, most recently analyzing a set of bone replicas bearing cut marks that were excavated from an anthropological dig in Indiana.

Electron Microscopy Center

David Gene Morgan, left, supervises IU Bloomington graduate student Andrey Malyutin as he conducts research using the three-ton, 300,000-volt imaging microscope. | Photo By Chris Meyer

All three of the electron microscopes are system-wide IU campus resources that can also be reserved for paid use by researchers from outside of IU.

And while they are primarily used by researchers in the departments of chemistry, biology and biochemistry, the microscopes are open to researchers from fields as diverse as geology and psychology. A researcher from the Lilly Library once used the scanning electron microscope to analyze Tibetan manuscripts.

The Electron Microscopy Center scientists can either analyze data for researchers or, in some cases, train them on how to use the microscopes themselves.

Among those who currently use the giant electron microscope is a School of Medicine researcher studying a disease that affects mitochondria and an assistant professor of chemistry whose students and post-docs are analyzing nanoparticles.

In the past, Morgan has helped conduct imaging work for a commercial startup associated with IPFW, while Stein has worked with campuses that include IU Kokomo and DePauw University.

"Anybody who can show a need can use it," Morgan said of the 300,000-volt microscope. "But it's enough trouble to learn to use that if someone is not going to be using it for more than a year, the three to six months of training wouldn't be worthwhile."

The Electron Microscopy Center recently become a core facility of the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, which makes these microscopes easily accessible to scientists from Purdue and Notre Dame, as well as all IU campuses.

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