Why Microscopy is Cool, by Marc Toso

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It all started with my mother. A year or so into graduate school I had become a seasoned "gel jock".  What felt like a thousand southern blots and PCR runs later I saw two faint yet distinct bands. A few sequencing reactions later success was at hand.  What was a young student to do but show off the fruits of labor?  So with pride I revealed my success to my mother. What did she see? Two black smudgy bands on some photo paper. With an incredulous look she doubtfully exclaimed, "If you say so..."

Then the day came a year or two later, I'd been working in the Franceschi Microscopy and Imaging Center at Washington State University for a year or two. I showed a SEM image of a protozoan parasite to my family. Easy as cake to make, fix, dehydrate, sputter-coat and image. They had no idea what it was; no idea if there was any meaningful data but they thought it was super cool, everyone who saw it did, scientists and nonscientists alike. This is why I became a microscopist.

Microscopy is elegant. Most simply put microscopy is function expressed through form. And as a wonderful side point, it is beautiful. This is one of the greatest tools in scientific discovery and communication.

While working in the Microscopy Imaging Center of Skidmore College, a small liberal arts school, I became acquainted with students of a more artistic temperament. After exposure to our imaging facilities during a tour or an introductory biology course many of these students would delve into biology. They were perfectionists in obtaining clean aesthetic images and sometimes even designed experiments purely for the artistic challenges often times resulting in stunning multi-chromatic three-dimensional confocal images and movies. Many times this stimulated collaborations where science influenced art and art likewise influenced science. Microscopy was a crucial tool in reaching these students.

Beyond traditional education microscopy images are powerful tools to educate the media and thereby the general population on scientific topics. Historically this has been the case since the origins of the microscope. In 1665 Robert Hooke published his book Micrographia in which he meticulously drew his microscopic observations. This pulled the public's imagination into the scientific realm. It was a best seller and in some respects the first science book intellectually accessible to the masses.

Centuries later it was the microscopic observations of Pasteur which revolutionized the world's concept of hygiene and medicine. Microscopic images also influenced architecture themes in the work of art nouveau architects Victor Horta and Louis Sullivan who incorporated images inspired by the microscope into their designs. This style of communicating science and art is still active today via scientific artists like Martin Oeggerli, the Micronaut and the fact that now confocal images are sold as fine art.  Hopefully both disciplines of science and art will learn something from the other.

By Marc Toso, John Moran Eye Center, University of Utah, USA

Images:  Top: Confocal image of the alga Spirogyra. Bottom: TEM image of a lambda phage. Both were taken by students when I was at Skidmore.



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