Microscopic view: Biology department gets help from English department for funding

Amanda Monthei

A new confocal microscope purchased by the biology department in November will projected to provide Northern Michigan University students and faculty with the research capabilities of some of the most competitive schools in the Midwest.

The Olympus Fluoview confocal microscope, which was purchased for $200,000, will contribute to research in the chemistry and psychology, as well as biology departments.

“We will all be able to utilize this scope,” faculty member Erich Ottem said. “It is bringing us into this decade of unlimited capabilities. This (microscope) is usually reserved for Research I institutions. It’s so fantastic that we have this capability and we’re going to use it.”

Where normal microscopes provide only a top-down, surface view, confocal microscopes differ tremendously in that they provide a three-dimensional image.

“The lasers scan down into the tissue, so at every level, we’re exciting new and different cellular components,” Ottem said. “We can use layers to scan deep into the tissue, and the excited lights found by the detector reconstruct it into a three-dimensional image.

“We can the make a stack and put it together into a 3-D rotatable animation.”

Users of the microscope can label specific cells with a fluorocarbon, which in turn lights up, or as Ottem puts it, “gets excited,” by the microscope’s lasers.

“We can now look at that dimensions of labeled cells, look at the distribution of proteins and how it changes in a diseased state versus health,” Ottem said. “Imaging cancer cells and their distribution, as well as how they respond to various treatments, becomes now possible in 3-D.”

Earlier in the year, Ottem began to look for a way to finance the equipment. His first stop was dean of art and science Michael Broadway.

“I was the loud-mouth jerk that started it,” he said. “I was camping on the dean’s doorstep with brochures and reports and schools in the Midwest that have these and how we are falling in behind in competition.”

Broadway was very open to the idea, and eventually used one-time department funds to help finance the equipment.

“Erich was really the catalyst behind this,” Broadway said. “He is a young faculty member who is engaged in some really interesting research.

“He is relatively new and starting out very energetic, with lots of good ideas, the kind of faculty member that you would want to support.”

Broadway also found some help from an unlikely source in financing the microscope, getting funds from not only the psychology department, but also from English.

“The dean approached me and said the biology department is requesting this equipment and they obviously don’t have enough money for it, and I want to tap some of your funds,” English department head Ray Ventre said. “I said I had two questions.

“The first was ‘how significantly and valuably will this contribute to the students’ education and the second was ‘how significant will it be for the faculty research.’ He said pretty significant in both regards and I said that ‘we’re good to go, take the money.’”

In appreciation for the English department’s contribution, the biology department decided to name the microscope “Ray.” Ventre remained modest though, saying that when a dean approaches him with a request for funds, he can’t say no.

“It came from a sequestered fund, which is money that has carry over funds from successive years, from things that we’ve done and worked on,” he said. “The dean wanted to tap it for this and that’s his right literally, it’s the dean’s right to take these funds. It was nice that he talked to me about it first though.

In its time on campus, just over two weeks now, the microscope has been brewing excitement amongst undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty.

Graduate student Justine Pinskey said she will be using the enhanced capabilities of the microscope in her master’s thesis.

“Hands-on experience with confocal microscopy is an extremely valuable skill in my field,” said Pinskey, a second year master’s candidate in the biology program. “I am currently applying to Ph.D. programs in the biomedical sciences, and one of the main criteria that graduate schools are looking for is research experience.

“Being familiar and comfortable with a confocal microscope will help me get into graduate school and give me a head start once I am there, since many students do not have access to this type of sophisticated research equipment.”