MDI Biological Laboratory

Beyond the Naked Eye

  • July 15, 2022

Hannah Somers is a research assistant in Jarod Rollins's lab. Among other things, she is an avid photographer and skilled microscopist. Read on to discover what jumpstarted Hannah’s interest in microscopy and how she uses it to move science forward.

My interest in microscopy started when I was young – I loved small critters like bugs, worms, and all manner of things you can find under a rock. My grandfather sent us a small microscope to use, and I spent hours looking at my little treasures with it. As I got older, I developed a passion for photography, which continues to this day. I am drawn to capturing the beauty of nature, as well as the beauty you can find in the microscopic domain.

During college at Maine Maritime Academy, I worked as a researcher in the Marine Engine Testing and Emissions Laboratory. We used the single celled microalga Dunaliella tertiolecta to produce glycerol for synthesizing biofuels and as a biofuel additive. During this time, I became more familiar with microscopes, and it lit my passion for microscopic organisms, and their ability to help humans. For example, did you know that microscopic phytoplankton are the largest producers of oxygen on Earth?

As a research assistant in the Rollins lab at MDIBL, I am continuously honing my skills in microscopy. I am currently trained on all the confocal microscopes in the Light Microscopy Facility at MDIBL: the Zeiss LSM 980, the Nikon Ti-E Spinning Disk, and the Olympus FV1000, each a complex tool designed to facilitate our research. I also use some of the widefield systems we have, which illuminate an entire sample with light. This year, I attended Quantitative Fluorescence Microscopy, an intensive one-week course at MDIBL, which was a unique opportunity to learn cutting-edge microscopy techniques, image quantification, and the future of microscopy. I also enjoy microscopy outside of work and love to create beautiful images to better engage the public with science.

In the lab, we use microscopes to understand cellular structures invisible to the naked eye; these tools are crucial to modern scientific research. The Rollins lab studies aging and longevity via protein translation, an extraordinarily important process which tells the body what type of tissue or organ to build. We primarily work with the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) with the goal of helping humans live longer, healthier lives. Recently, we developed a method using fluorescent puromycin, which labels proteins, to measure translation in whole C. elegans, allowing people to see what is happening with protein translation at a tissue-specific level under different experimental conditions. Previously, this analysis could not be done on individual worms. Using IMARIS, a microscopy image analysis software, we were able to use 3D volumetric measurements to interrogate changes in translation in specific tissues like the germline, which forms sex cells. We employ multiple techniques with these tools, including FRAP (Fluorescence Recovery After Photobleaching), which allows us to study protein mobility in living cells, and time lapse microscopy to better understand how translation plays a role in longevity.

The ability to understand the inner workings of microscopic organisms is an incredible tool to help scientists understand biology. I am so grateful for all the opportunities that led me here and have allowed me to use such fine instruments. MDIBL is a hidden gem indeed, housing many incredible microscopes and allowing scientists to look beyond what is possible with the human eye.