Willamette University scientists’ collaboration yields NSF support


The recommendation from the National Science Foundation reflects the review panel’s “resoundingly positive support” for a grant application submitted by Willamette University scientists in biology, physics and chemistry for a laser scanning confocal microscope.  

Biology professors Emma Coddington, Jason Duncan, Barbara Stebbins-Boaz and Gary Tallman teamed up with physics professor David Altman and chemistry professor Alison Fisher to secure the powerful imaging equipment. 

“We worked with students to help select the microscope,” said Coddington. “Not only will this imaging equipment improve the research opportunities for students and faculty at Willamette, but we’d like to use the microscope to build collaborative relationships with other area colleges that would benefit from its use.” 

The NSF review panel cited close student-faculty research partnerships at Willamette, collaboration with other area colleges and demonstrated outreach efforts from participating faculty as principle reasons why the foundation awarded $526,788 to purchase the equipment.

Most of the grant’s authors participate in the Science Collaborative Research Program, which pairs students with a faculty member for research work over the summer. Through this and similar programs that partner students and faculty, Willamette undergraduates get hands-on laboratory experience that is typically reserved for graduate students in a larger research university. 

The equipment

With bright-field microscopy - typically used in a high school biology lab - visible light is passed through, or reflected from, a sample through a series of lenses to create a magnified image. 

Fluorescence microscopy is a more sensitive technique. When a certain type of molecule is excited by a particular wavelength of light, the molecule emits light at a specific, higher wavelength. By using filters to isolate the emitted light, fluorescence microscopes create a high-contrast image with very little background noise.

Thick samples may pose a challenge for fluorescence microscopy, because fluorescence outside of the plane of focus shows up as unwanted noise. The key to the laser scanning confocal microscope is the use of spatial filtering to “see” only the plane of focus, eliminating noise, increasing sensitivity and allowing imaging of thin sections of a thick sample. By collecting series of these thin sections, it’s possible to recreate a highly detailed, high-contrast, three-dimensional image.