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Sky is the Limit in W&L's IQ Center

Anyone who enters the new Integrative and Quantitative (IQ) Center at Washington and Lee University learns quickly what Helen I’Anson, professor of biology, means when she says that the sky is the limit in the new facility.

Opened this fall and supported with both private gifts and a portion of the University’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant, the 4,841-square-foot IQ Center houses the very latest in technology and offers undergraduates hands-on experience with equipment that ordinarily they might not see, let alone use, until they’re in graduate school.

Some of the treasures available in the center:

  • A stereo 3D lab with both portable flat screens to display to small groups and a large central screen.
  • A computer visualization lab, with eight high-performance work stations with dual monitors and dual ceiling-mounted projectors, for a seamless wall-to-wall image at the front of the room.
  • A Zeiss EVO 15 scanning electron microscope.
  • An Olympus IX51 laser scanning confocal microscope.
  • An Olympus BX 61 upright fluorescence microscope.
  • A light microscopy suite.
  • A physical/mechanical lab featuring high-speed recording capabilities, 3D inputs from laser scanners, and ceiling video feeds.
  • A ProJet 3D printer offering rapid 3D print in full color.

“Many universities may have one or the other of these spaces, but I am not aware of anything like this in one space that is available to undergraduates for teaching and research,” said I’Anson. “What we’re trying to do in the space is so new that our technology consultants have never actually built a space like this before, and it’s been a learning experience to them.”

Since the facility came online earlier this month, the buzz has not been limited to science students and faculty, said David Pfaff, the center’s director.

“What’s exciting for me is to see a faculty member come to look at the space and watch them begin to think of all the ways in which they might use it,” said Pfaff. “They’ve seen something that’s sparked their interest and decided to incorporate into their coursework. They knew the center was going to come online. But until they got in here and saw some of the equipment, it gave them ideas of things they are actually using in their courses today.”

The center has multiple goals that support the initiatives tied to the HHMI grant, according to I’Anson. On the one hand, it provides a space where scientists and their students can learn new technologies and apply those technologies to their learning. That will help increase retention in science and math careers.

The other important goal is to increase scientific literacy in students who are not going on to any kind of scientific career.

“On the one hand, we have the science students who are already enamored by sciences and for whom this space will be fantastic by helping them grapple with concepts they’re learning in their courses,” said I’Anson. “They’re already hooked, so this will further enhance their education.

“For those students who would prefer not to set foot in the Science Building, but are required to take some science and math courses, the gee-whiz core technology is going to draw them into science and math earlier and help them to see the utility of science and math in their lives. We need to create an informed citizenry when it comes to science and math.”

Among the many features of the facility that both I’Anson and Pfaff believe makes it uncommon is the ability for material to be examined in one of the microscopy suites. Then the images are streamed to the computer visualization lab down the hall, where a classroom of students can be examining the data in real time.

Then there is the stereo 3D lab, which has space for 36 students who can work in groups of three or nine for easier collaboration. They can share data on their laptops and project their work on the large screens.

“We have had biology faculty come into the stereo 3D lab and take one look at what a protein structure looks like in stereographic 3D and immediately want to teach that in a class,” said Pfaff. “When you see a complicated structure that really is three-dimensional pop at you, it’s much easier to visualize the structure.”

And if visualizing such a structure on the screens is not enough, the next step is to send that structure to the 3D printer across the hall. Then the students can hold that protein structure in their hands and examine it.

It would be one thing if the equipment in the center were hidden away behind locked doors of an individual’s lab. One of the key ideas behind the IQ Center, however, is accessibility for all the students.

“Typically, when a big piece of equipment like a confocal microscope is purchased, it goes into someone’s lab,” said Pfaff. “People don’t simply come across it. In this space, it’s in a central location where students see it, where other faculty see it. That accessibility is what is particularly exciting to me.”

In fact, students can sign up online to use the equipment, and several items in the IQ Center may be used not only by W&L students and faculty but also by colleagues from neighboring institutions, including Virginia Military Institute (in Lexington) and Mary Baldwin College (in Staunton).

In addition, local schoolchildren may visit the IQ Center as part of various outreach efforts by W&L students in the STEM areas. The student-led Women in the Sciences organization works with local middle-school girls who might lack confidence in their ability in the sciences, and W&L students will be able to show off the technology in the IQ Center as another way to maintain their interest in the subject and help build their confidence.

As the center was getting underway this fall, I’Anson knew quickly that it was going to be a hit with the science students and faculty. What has both pleased and surprised her is how much interest people outside the sciences have expressed.

“We have an English course taught in the computer visualization lab already. A classics course is being planned for the space,” said I’Anson. “Our new initiative in digital humanities fits perfectly with the concept for the center. The conversations about this facility that are starting with various departments and people across campus have been gratifying. For me, the bonuses keep coming now that the space is open.

“I think that the sky is the limit in what we can do in this space. We are limited only by the imagination of the folks who are having these conversations.”