A School’s Online Microscope Project Spans 2,400 Miles

By Andrew Trotter — June 11, 2003 6 min read
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Amid the fish tanks and black lab tables in Melanie Fields’ biology classroom, a video camera perched on the eyepiece of a microscope strikes a note of modernity. A cable transmits the camera’s view of the specimen—showing the brain of a zebrafish, magnified by 40 times—to a wall-mounted television.

A microscope of another order of magnitude is also available to Ms. Fields’ students at the private, 1,093-student Sidwell Friends School here, although at a distance of 2,400 miles.

Aviel Ginzburg, 18, seated at a 20-inch monitor at the front of the Sidwell lab one day last week, is using the Internet to operate a 400,000-volt transmission electron microscope at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, located at the University of California, San Diego.

The $1.5 million tool can magnify specimens by up to 300,000 times by bombarding them with streams of electrons and detecting the resulting patterns. The range for biological work, however, is more like a magnification of 3,000 to 40,000 times.

The San Diego center has pioneered “telemicroscopy,” giving researchers online access to their microscope—most recently through the World Wide Web.

That’s how Mr. Ginzburg is able to control the microscope, using commands sent to the device by clicking in one of several boxes on the screen. A few mouse clicks and the specimen stage moves to the left or right in increments of 1 micron, or one- thousandth of a millimeter. For even finer adjustments, he tweaks the deflector coils, which bend the electron beam by magnetism. Using another menu, he drops magnification from 8,000 times to 5,000 times.

Later, he captures a few images, using exposure times of 1,000 milliseconds.

Ms. Fields’ students are taking part in one of a rash of “telescience” projects that are breaking out in fortunate American classrooms like hers in the nation’s capital. Teenagers are getting access to high-level scientific equipment at university research centers, and in some cases, collaborating with researchers.

Other online microscope projects for high schools include the Interactive Nano-Visualization in Science and Engineering Education, or IN- VSEE, project, through which Arizona State University makes a scanning-probe microscope available to high schools, colleges, and science museums over the Web.

Other Web-based projects allow high schoolers to control large telescopes, or let younger students make daily observations of animal populations using carefully positioned Webcams, according to Gerhard Salinger, the co-lead of advanced technological education at the National Science Foundation.

‘A Place for This’

Mr. Salinger cautioned, however, that the electron microscopes involve “pretty esoteric physics” and to students may be just “a black box you put something in and get something out [of].”

“I have a little trouble with electron and atomic-force microscopes [used by high school students],” he said. “What I want is for the students to understand the science.”

But he added, “I think there’s a place for this.” Projects for high-level students “tell them they’re not unique,” he said. “I think it’s important to have some activities that challenge the best and the brightest and keep them interested.”

At the San Diego microscopy center, John Crum, a staff research associate who has worked with students from Ms. Fields’ class, said their participation serves both of the center’s missions: education and the development of telemicroscopy tools.

“They’re definitely useful in developing the software. Since they’re new users, they’re able to come up with user-interface problems with software probably a little easier than scientists who are under the [viewing] hood every day,” he said. “They do a certain amount of busywork for us.”

Ms. Fields, who has taught biology for 30 years, has been working for more than a decade to link her students to such high-end science tools, from a conviction that they will magnify their enthusiasm for learning.

“I don’t like things that are canned,” Ms. Fields said. “It’s the problem-solving that’s the educational part.”

She teaches some of the academically elite school’s most advanced science students in honors freshman biology, Advanced Placement biology, and a research course for juniors and seniors called 21st Century Biology. Her students do internships, publish papers, create posters for display at scientific conferences, and prepare lessons posted on the Web for use by teachers.

But Ms. Fields says even students who are not so advanced should be learning about the many forms of microscopy found in scientific inquiry today. Students can develop abilities to solve problems and to integrate computers with more traditional types of lab work, such as raising and experimenting with fish, she says.

Ms. Fields aims, in addition to having her students learn to operate the microscope, to train them in making 3-D tomographic reconstructions— building models from a series of two-dimensional images that are taken at precise angles.

It’s a painstaking process that can take anywhere from a day to weeks, but it’s valuable for science. For example, her students have studied spiny dendrites, parts of neurons that under a standard optical microscope appear smooth like a piece of hair. But when viewed using 3-D tomography from an electron microscope, they appear much more complex, “like a piece of hair with a bunch of torn pieces,” Ms. Fields said.

Scientists don’t know why, she noted. “We talk about all this with kids—why would this have evolved through natural selection?”

Learning From Mistakes

On this day, Aviel Ginzburg’s session at the controls of the transmission electron microscope has not been trouble-free. In fact, he’s been on a speaker phone with Abel Lin, the lab technician in San Diego, for 90 minutes, trying to solve communication problems so he can operate the microscope’s Internet-based controls.

The student doesn’t seem to mind, however. “It’s the best—having the person who actually wrote the program on the phone with you,” Mr. Ginzburg said.

And now the controls are working, and eight students cluster around peering into the video box on the computer screen.

Mr. Ginzburg turns the microscope’s controls over to Sam Powell, a sophomore, who begins to tilt the stage by increments of two degrees. By making images every two degrees through a range of 120 degrees, they could create a 3-D image of their specimen. But today, they just take a few images, for practice.

The video image is grainy and gray. It’s a rat cell, but it looks like a blurry aerial map or a negative image of a star nebula.

“I can see my house from here,” jokes David Abrahams, a senior.

Mr. Powell continues to tweak, and soon there’s nothing.

“Are you guys, like, lost on the grid?” says Mr. Lin, the San Diego technician. “If you want, I can recenter you guys.”

Later, Ms. Fields gets an e-mail from Steven T. Peltier, the center’s executive director, relaying praise from Mr. Lin. “You guys are becoming pros at this!” Mr. Peltier writes.

Such words are warmly received, because the Sidwell students were not able to use the microscope earlier this school year and much of last year because of an array of problems.

One was a network firewall installed by the school that caused interruptions in communications that the school technicians could not resolve for months. Eventually, Sidwell gave the classroom an Internet hookup in front of the firewall.

Another ill-starred project was the attempt by Ms. Fields’ students to build a high-powered computer workstation so they could do more of the tomography themselves—"a dumb idea,” the teacher says now.

Yet encountering such difficulties and overcoming them, or even failing, is part of science. Of failure, Ms. Fields said: “Guess what? Einstein lived with that.”

Mr. Ginzburg, who was an intern last summer in San Diego, said using the electron microscope has led to an internship here after graduation helping a medical researcher investigate the biological causes of autism using tomography.

The experience was also confidence-building, he wrote in a college application, showing him “there’s trust in me to be able to control something like this—that it’s worth [the researchers’] time.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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