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Microscopy in Focus for Maine INBRE Students

  • August 28, 2023

Students and young science faculty from all around Maine converged on MDI Bio Lab’s campus for an intensive 10-day course on the use of the most modern microscopy of the day.

For Seth Ashby, a rising junior studying microbiology at UMaine Orono, the”Maine Microscopy” course was a true eye opener.

 “When I started out I thought I knew all about microscopes: you adjust the lens, you look through light. And you see,” Ashby says.“But what I didn’t realize, and almost every student I think would agree with this, is how little we actually knew about microscopy.”

That knowledge gap was amply filled, he says, by the daily lectures and hands-on experience provided by a roster of faculty and others who work with the array of advanced imaging instruments and software in MDI Bio Lab’s Light Microscopy Facility, directed by Frederic Bonnet, Ph.D.

“We use microscopy as a tool that’s essential to microbiology, but we were severely underutilizing it,” Ashby says. “And I think that was the best part; every lecture without fail introduced that to me. And I loved it.”

Ashby was one of 12 students and young faculty who applied for and won coveted seats in the course, which is offered free thanks to the federally funded Maine INBRE network. INBRE stands for IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence.

“Students and faculty dine together on a break from a Maine Microscopy course at MDI Bio Lab. The course is sponsored by the NIH’s IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE).”

Led by MDI Bio Lab, the program is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Over the last decade it has sent $87 million in direct support to 14 research and higher education institutions in Maine.

Working collaboratively, they’ve leveraged those funds to provide-hands on research experience for undergraduates, support early career faculty as they build labs and seek research grants, and to modernize scientific infrastructure (such as state-of-the-art microscopy).

INBRE was created by Congress  to steer federal research dollars to 23 rural and other small states (and Puerto Rico) with historically low levels of NIH funding. For students from economically challenging backgrounds, such as Seth Ashby, the support is vital.

“We had a good upbringing, but there wasn’t enough money to be like, ‘hey, let’s do a $4,000 extra course outside of my regular academics,’ ” Ashby says. “While there are opportunities like it that you can find when you have enough financial support, it’s really out of reach for someone who is in my sort of situation. So this was just amazing that it gave me that opportunity.”

The Maine INBRE Network

Bonnet, who led the course with UMaine Associate Professor Karissa Tilbury, Ph.D., says he is passionate about providing equal access to the best research tools and the training to use them well.

“Most microscopy courses are competitive and expensive – several thousands of dollars to attempt,” he says. Not everyone can take them, putting students from rich labs or schools a different level than students from more modest lab, creating an unbalanced situation.”

He’s equally passionate about the need for all scientists to improve their microscopy knowledge. “Microscopy is a quantitative tool, and it’s hard to gain proper training on its interconnected aspects of microscopy,” he says. “Microscopy is sample preparation and tissue clearing, image acquisition, and image analysis. Mistakes in any one of these areas can profoundly impact results and then the quality of the research.”

Ashby and the other students received rigorous and vigorous instruction in all of those from expert faculty and others (including Zeiss Microscopy representatives Dominic Pjescich and Michael Bates) using MDI Bio Lab’s array of advanced 3D confocal and light sheet microscopes. The Light Microscopy Facility’s equipment and data systems have been acquired thanks to significant investments by INBRE and generous support from private donors.

Hyemin Min, Ph.D.

By the end of the course, Ashby was able to use data from those microscopes to successfully build a cell-level image of C. elegans, the tiny, transparent roundworm and model for human physiology that he is also using for an experiment back at UMaine

“I definitely do feel like I have gotten a better mastery over understanding how my future projects are going to work, and how I can expand them and actually successfully use them,” he says. “Now I am looking for what my next INBRE course will be.”

The Maine INBRE Microscopy team: