We live in the age of Superheroes, where the thriving movie and comic industries are quick to reassure us that there is always a hero around who will step and do what must be done to save those in need. Recently, I caught up with the recent Marvel movies (Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War) which set me thinking about our own field of microscopy and whether we can think of what we do and how we work in a similar way.
I was a child of the eighties, growing up we had plenty of cartoons and movies in which the characters had special abilities or powers that they used (mostly) to fight evildoers. As I see it, hero movies, cartoons and comics typically have characters who either have special powers / abilities as a result of something that happened to them (Spiderman/ The Hulk/ Wolverine) as part of natural evolution (many of the x-men) or who are not of this world (Superman/ Supergirl). There are then the heroes who use certain devices and technology to perform amazing feats beyond that of the average human being (Ironman, Antman). This is clearly the class of heroes that we would find ourselves in as microscopists as we use the technologies at our disposal to perform the miraculous microscopy that we do (unless any of you have a secret).
One of my favourite shows as a kid was M.A.S.K, in which each of the characters had a mask that gave them special powers and they also were responsible for a vehicle that had special technology or capabilities. In each episode something would happen that meant that some members of the team would be called upon to deal with the situation be using the powers, vehicle and masks. To do this a computer would analyse the situation and select the team members, stating why they’d been chosen, based on their mask and vehicle.
If we transfer the same concept to what we actually do in microscopy, we could make the same show. In our case it might be that a particular science or engineering problem needs to be solved (there are so many to tackle) and we would choose the right members of the team (maybe your core facility of microscopy lab) with the correct skill set (background and ability to drive a microscope or perform some analysis). If we stop and think about what we actually do as microscopists we have some pretty amazing skills. The ability to see objects at high magnification, even to atoms? That’s could be TEM or STEM! What if we want to observe cells as they carry out a process or replicate? We could turn to a form of fluorescence microscopy such as confocal or light sheet microscopy. Sometimes we need to observe a sample non-destructively and want to understand it in real time in three dimensions, so we could choose X-Ray Microscopy and perhaps subject it to load and watch it change. Of course there always people who want to understand the spatial distribution of a sample and we as microscopists have a range of options, including elemental analysis using x-rays (EDS/WDS) or vibrational spectroscopy (Raman / IR). Perhaps if we were to make up our own names we would end up with microscopy inspired names like ‘Mag-man, Miss-magnification, Zoom, FIBinator, Element or Prof Freeze!
Whatever your situation or emergency, there are microscopy heroes waiting to jump into action and save the day (or data). So next time you’re face with a problem, think of yourself as a microscopy hero and be proud to be one of us, ready to rise to the challenge and answer the call of this in need!
Until next time