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A day at the USDA

“Mitey” interesting place…

A theme that has been emerging with my ‘setting the scene’ visits [to meet those involved with facilitating STEM learning/research projects] has been the large variety of internship opportunities. One of the labs that encourages internships (as well as welcoming visiting groups, working with teachers to update their knowledge, working with teachers who are doing a research project as part of a masters program etc. etc.) is the characterisation lab at the United States Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, MD.

A mite on a plate: 3D printed mite constructed using information from the USDA lab's confocal microscope - a 3D net is generated as the mite fluoresces at each z-slice and so builds up a complete 3D reconstruction.

A mite on a plate: 3D printed mite constructed using information from the USDA lab’s confocal microscope – a 3D net is generated as the mite fluoresces at each z-slice and so builds up a complete 3D reconstruction.

It was a real pleasure to meet fellow electron microscopist and head of the Electron and Confocal Microcopy unit at the USDA Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, Dr Gary Bauchan. Aside from allowing me to relive my time as a microscopist by showing me his lab, Dr Bauchan talked at length about the opportunities for young people in Washington DC and the wider communities. There is no argument that this part of the USA is relatively wealthy and as such the resources for education, certainly the public schools funded by local taxes, are healthy. However, the approach that some schools have taken is impressive. Taken from their website, this is how the Eleanor Roosevelt HS regards science research – this is the first paragraph on their website listing the courses available in the science department:

“Advanced STEM Research
Advanced STEM Research is a yearlong project-based course. The primary purpose of this course is to provide students an opportunity for firsthand, supervised research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. “Research” is defined as mentored, but self-directed, work that enables individual students or a small group of students in collaboration with faculty members to explore an issue of interest to them, to conduct the in-depth investigation/experiments/design, and to communicate their results to others. Projects may involve inquiry, planning, design, investigation, creation, discovery, or application, depending on the topic, and the student is aware of how her or his project fits into and contributes to solving the larger problem to which it belongs.”
Dr Bauchan (right) and me (left) doing my very best drosophilia impression!

Dr Bauchan (right) and me (left) doing my very best drosophilia impression!

In addition to this – and something that Dr Bauchan has been impressed with over the years is the fact that their students have the opportunity to take part in summer internships. Many take advantage of placements in STEM research labs including the characteristion lab at the USDA. Once more, many anecdotes about keen students who have gone on to excellent colleges and even been invited back to participate in other projects. Incredibly, Dr Bauchan also mentioned students working on academic-year long placements during high school – this is something I need research further…

Whether it continues to be sustainable is a question (that I will return to later) but it seems that companies, universities and even government research labs are able to facilitate high school students embedding themselves in the research world. Internships are not a new idea but it seems the number of opportunities and the willingness of organisations to take high school students is much greater than I expected. While not necessarily ‘research in schools’ the DCSTEM network has details of several internship programs that facilitate students and teachers working in research labs, for example here.
Either way – some of the equipment that high school visitors and teachers doing summer research projects might use are shown here (in addition to the tabletop SEM that is the same version that we have at St Paul’s, used for high throughput imaging. They now have a number ‘on the road’ for imaging of bugs found in shipping containers that need to be characterised quickly!)
here’s the bit for the microscope anoraks…
AxioZoom flourescence microscope AZFM (left) and Digital Light Microscope DLM (right)

AxioZoom flourescence microscope AZFM (left) and Digital Light Microscope DLM (right)

A couple of workhorse light microscopes that produce really interesting images. The AxioZoom v16 on the left in the picture can use flourescence to study the funtion of particular features of animals and plants (see here for quick guide to flourescence!)

The Hirox 7700 DLM on the right has a clever stage and mirror arrangement that allows photos and movies to be captured from any angle, especially important apparently for looking at the ‘true’ reflected light colour of insects.
Variable pressure scanning electron microscope with x-ray spectroscopy

Variable pressure scanning electron microscope with x-ray spectroscopy

Aside from the Hitachi TM3030 tabletop (same as ours at St Paul’s) they have a number of other scanning electron microscopes, each with is own niche! Variable pressure (Hitachi 3700 Variable Pressure SEM with Oxford X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS)) allows the imaging of samples that are likely to build up charge on the surface (because you’re bombarding the surface with electrons). Flowing a small amount of gas over the sample helps remove the build up of electrons without affecting the collection of secondary electrons that make up the image.
Low temperature SEM or 'cryo' SEM uses a complicated liquid nitrogen stage to keep samples well below freezing!

Low temperature SEM or ‘cryo’ SEM uses a complicated liquid nitrogen stage to keep samples well below freezing!

EDS is ‘energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy’ and is used to identify the surface composition (again, a facility that we have on the SPS TM3030). The low temperature [or cryo] SEM (Hitachi 4700 SEM with Quorum Cryo-Prep Chamber)is rather a jewell in the crown for SEM users, especially those that look at biological specimens as it helps maintain the very sensitive fine structures found on microscopic creatures and plants as well as the subtle surface features on skin, shell or whatever outer layer is being imaged. Plus you can image snowflakes in the SEM, rather beautiful structures, I think you’ll agree…!
In addition they have a Zeiss 710 Confocal Laser Scanning Microscope (which was used to produce the 3d printed mite shown above) and a new Hitachi 7700 TEM (that’s transmission electron microscope). All of which high school students and/or high school teachers have had a chance to use or become trained operators on at some stage. Impressive!

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