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Friday, January 22, 2021

Microart: Life Magnified

Cellular and molecular biology senior Laurel Sugden demonstrates how to work the Leica microscope in a microbiology lab on Thursday, April 14. // Photo by Ian Koppe
Cellular and molecular biology senior Laurel Sugden demonstrates how to work the Leica microscope in a microbiology lab on Thursday, April 14. // Photo by Ian Koppe

Biology professor David Leaf teaches his students to use the most state-of-the-art microscopes on Western’s campus as part of a cell biology laboratory course. His goal is to simulate the real- world setting many of his students may find themselves in in the future. Typically, these microscopes are used in postgraduate research labs; it is rare for undergraduate students to have access to them.

Leaf said the microscopes allow his students to research cells more efficiently.

Because the microscope is automated, students can push buttons and the filters will be put into place, whereas in a manual microscope, there’s a learning curve to actually be able to put all the pieces together. “It makes it a lot more accessible for students,” Leaf said.

The microscopes operate with a complex microperfusion system, meaning an extended lifespan for the cell cultures students examine in the lab.  In the past, the department’s equipment only allowed them to observe living cells for about an hour, but the new system keeps the cells alive for days on end, Leaf said.

“When they’re looking at the slides that they made, they have a particular sense of ownership of that which is pretty remarkable,” he said.

Students spend roughly half of the course making and examining slides, while the other half of the course requires them to monitor the growth culture of the cells. They must be particularly meticulous in how they handle the slides or they risk contaminating them with bacteria.

“You have to make the conditions in which they’re working as realistic as possible,” Leaf said.

“If a student is competent to use a microscope and they’re competent in staining cells and tissue, you can’t make it so the experience is something that wouldn’t be reflected by what happens in the real world.”

Senior Laurel Sugden studies cellular and molecular biology and said the course may give her an upper hand when applying to graduate schools where the same sort of microscopes are often used.

“You have to make the conditions in which they’re working as realistic as possible.”

Biology professor David Leaf

Senior cellular and molecular biology major Alison Schiele appreciated how interactive the course was. She said it has allowed her to now read primary literature and understand how researchers went about getting images.

Two years ago, microscope manufacturer Leica offered the microscopes to Western’s biology department at a significant discount. Western was able to purchase the microscope for roughly half the cost of its normal retail price of approximately $113,000.

At the time, the program could not afford Leica’s asking price by thousands of dollars. The biology department developed a GoFundMe page that helped bridge the financial gap, raising over $30,000 within their one month window.

Sugden and Schiele believe both professors’ enthusiasm for the course was integral in making it so engaging for them as students.

“It was cool to have two people who were so knowledgeable and have been doing this their whole lives,” Sugden said.

In addition to providing students with unique opportunities to observe and study cells, Leaf also believes the work required by the students to cultivate the cell cultures makes their projects more personal.

With the state-of-the-art microscopes, Leaf wants to foster abilities in his students at the college level he has been working on his whole life.

“We are expecting that students who takes this course would be able to go to any research lab and sit down with a microscope they haven’t really seen before,” Leaf said. ”They would be able to figure out how it worked and be able to immediately start getting good images.”

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