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New Laser Scanning Confocal Microscope at W&L for Regional Use

A new confocal laser scanning microscope at Washington and Lee University aims to increase research and training across the sciences, not only at W&L but also at two nearby institutions, Virginia Military Institute and Mary Baldwin College.

The microscope will be acquired through a $366,000 Major Research Instrumentation grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The proposal’s principal investigator (PI), Fiona Watson, assistant professor of biology and neuroscience, led the grant-writing effort with co-PIs Fred LaRiviere, assistant professor of chemistry, and Bob Stewart, associate professor of psychology and department head. Stewart emphasized that Watson “really drove the process.”

Eleven additional faculty at W&L, VMI and Mary Baldwin provided brief research project descriptions that detailed how the confocal microscope could be used to enhance and expand research and teaching at the three schools. The instrument is expected to be delivered by the end of the calendar year.

Confocal microscopy is a technique developed by Marvin Minsky in the 1950s, explained Stewart. “But it is widely used now and has become ‘de rigueur’ technology,” he said. In conventional microscopes, the entire specimen is illuminated at the same time, which results in a substantial out-of-focus light scatter.  The resulting image can lack detail and appear fuzzy. Stewart explained that a confocal microscope avoids out-of-focus scattered light by using a combination of high-powered lasers, a small pinhole and special mirrors to illuminate only a thin, optically-defined plane, or slice, through the specimen at a time. The technique allows an entire physical specimen to be examined as a series of optical slices that can be reconstructed using computer software to produce a three-dimensional image. The end result is an exceptionally clean, high resolution, three-dimensional representation of live or fixed biological specimens.  In fact, the image is so clean that it can even reveal the presence of a single molecule.

LaRiviere emphasized that the confocal microscope will enable diverse research projects. “For example, my research is at the molecular level, and I’ll use it to visualize proteins and nucleic acids,” he said. In contrast, the separate research projects of Stewart and Watson are at the organismal level. Stewart studies the development and physiological function of the mammalian taste system, and Watson researches optic nerve regeneration using live frogs. Stewart said, “I’m looking at how the system is put together at the outset, whereas Fiona is looking at how the system gets reconnected following injury. So the three of us really span a wide range of levels of biological organization, and we each bring a unique sort of expertise in terms of level of analysis. With the confocal microscope we hope to hatch fruitful collaborations where we can capitalize on one another’s strengths.”

The confocal microscope will be used by W&L’s departments of biology, chemistry, psychology, physics and engineering, and computer science, along with the programs of neuroscience and environmental sciences at W&L, VMI and Mary Baldwin.

LaRiviere said that W&L plans, in time, to reach out to other small liberal arts colleges in the area who might want to use the confocal microscope. “Hollins University, Roanoke College, Sweet Briar College, Lynchburg College and Randolph College all have faculty who engage undergraduates in research. So we view this instrument as a regional resource to be used by those faculty and their students,” he said

LaRiviere described the collaborative, multi-institutional angle as one of the proposal’s strengths. “It indicates that an instrument awarded to one institution can have a much broader impact,” he said.

While most universities and research centers charge an hourly fee for use of such an instrument, use of W&L’s confocal microscope will be free of charge in order to encourage research from faculty and students at small liberal arts colleges. LaRiviere added that there will also be a request for voluntary contributions that will be put into a cash account to maintain the equipment over time.

A further strength of the proposal was that it requires a detailed management plan for the microscope, including an online sign-up system. “Rules about the usage will be put in place to safeguard time-sensitive experiments using live specimens, and those users that include a travel time to get to W&L” said LaRiviere.

Stewart recalled that he started using confocal microscopy in 2003, but had to drive 75 minutes to the University of Virginia to use its equipment. “I took some students with me, but the number of students who were exposed to the instrument was limited. I’m incredibly pleased that an estimated 25 percent of all W&L science majors will now be able to have substantial time sitting at this microscope, learning the technology and the theory behind it. They will realize the fruits of the technological precision that we will bring to bear on problems we’re working on in the laboratory,” he said. “This is a major event for the sciences at Washington and Lee and will bring substantial benefits.”

Watson pointed out that her interest in gaining a confocal microscope for W&L began when she first arrived at the University. “One of the projects I wanted to do required a confocal microscope. So my only options were to travel for 75 minutes each time I wanted to use it, try and get one at W&L or collaborate with someone at another institution,” she said.  “So for the last three years, while we’ve been writing this grant, I changed the focus of my research until we could get a confocal microscope.”

Watson added that she knows from her own experience that the microscope will draw a lot of interest. “Confocal microscopy is critical for the study of biological structures and will allow us to compete better in recruiting new faculty,” she said. “It will also allow W&L to compete with other universities that are using high-end technology in their research. This will, in turn, allow W&L to train our undergraduates to compete for admission to graduate school, summer research internships and other competitive post graduate and professional programs ”

Stewart added that, in crafting the proposal, an important selling point was that they envisioned the confocal microscope as part of the core of a suite of instruments in computational facilities that will create a collaborative nucleus for the sciences at W&L called the Integrative Quantitative Science Center (IQ Center). “The IQ Center will promote student and faculty collaborations both within and between departments at W&L and at the institutions that surround W&L,” he said.

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