It’s a small world after all

By Bonnie Leung

Have you ever wondered what a cell looks like magnified over a million times? Or how a piece of metal would corrode atom by atom? University of Calgary students will
soon have first-hand knowledge of these processes.

This fall, the U of C’s Faculty of Medicine received $2.1 million in donations to purchase two electron microscopes which will aid in the research of many faculties, including Medicine and Engineering. The microscopes will be purchased this fall and will arrive in six to nine months.

According to Medicine Professor Dr. David Bazett-Jones, the detail seen in an electron microscope is far greater than a regular light microscope.

"That allows us to see atoms," he said. "It allows us to see molecular structures at very high levels of details. A light microscope allows us to see down to about three one-thousandths of a mm. An electron microscope can take us all the way down to about one millionth of a mm. "

All microscopes need a source of illumination. In some microscopes, scientists view the magnified image through the scattering of the light, but not in this case.

"Instead of using light, we use electrons, which travel at very
high speed and have a wavelike property," said Bazett-Jones. "So when electrons of that energy are used, they behave as light, but the detail we can detect with a beam of electrons is far greater than with visible light."

Bazett-Jones believes these microscopes will lead to new ways of thinking.

"Good science means that when you look at something for the first time, you’re in awe of what you see and that allows you to ask appropriate questions about how that structure you see functions and therefore will lead to applications that are relevant," he said.

Generally, graduate students will use the microscopes.

"It’s really important that they have access to as much instrumentation as possible, so they learn what kinds of questions these instruments will address and will have experience using them," said Bazett-Jones. "When they move on to perhaps running their own research labs, either in industry or in university, they will have had experience and can pass on the knowledge that they’ve gained."

Graduate student François-Michel Boisvert is excited about the microscopes.

"I can’t wait the six to eight months it will take until it is built and assembled here," he said.

The higher power electron microscope will be the first of its kind in Canada.

"So, that puts us on the map in Canada as leading in this area of microscopy," said Bazett-Jones. "The facility will attract users from around the province but also around the country and internationally as well. We already have an international reputation and this will strengthen that."

Boisvert feels the technology in the new microscopes will make way for huge progress.

"There is a lot more options that this microscope will offer," he said. "For example, it will be possible to use it remotely. All you need is a computer and somebody by the microscope to put your sample in."

Funding for the microscopes include donations from The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the Intellectual Infrastructure Partnership Program of Alberta, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, the Alberta Science and Research authority, Partners in Health, Poco Petroleum, and the U of C.