Delving Deeper: Science Faculty Receive Half a Million Dollars from the National Science Foundation to Expand Microscopy Work

September 06, 2022

Faculty members at Grinnell College have received another Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) Grant from the National Science Foundation. Clark Lindgren, Keisuke Hasegawa, Pascal Lafontant, Vida Praitis, Josh Sandquist, and Mark Levandoski were awarded the grant (DBI- 2216359) of $499,553 to purchase a laser scanning confocal microscope. The instrument will be a breakthrough in the research capabilities of faculty and students throughout the sciences at Grinnell.

The grant comes only weeks after faculty in the Department of Chemistry also received an NSF MRI grant to purchase a 400Mhz NMR Spectrometer. With both grants, faculty applicants submitted multiple proposals over several years. Their success reflects the significance of their research and their dedication to exemplary science education and mentorship.

Laser scanning confocal microscopy (LSCM) allows researchers to obtain high-resolution images of cell structure and the location of proteins within cells. The technique scans an object’s surface with a focused laser beam, reconstructing it pixel by pixel as the laser excites fluorescent proteins in the sample. With LSCM, scientists can obtain much higher resolution images than those possible with conventional microscopes and can also create 3-D reconstructions of samples by layering images captured at different depths.

An image obtained via laser scanning confocal microscopy shows clusters of frog embryos, with skeletal proteins appearing as bright green.
With a laser scanning confocal microscope, researchers at Grinnell can visualize cell structures with high resolution and high contrast. These images of developing epithelial cells in a Xenopus laevis frog embryo were captured via LSCM by Josh Sandquist, associate professor of biology.

Laser scanning confocal microscopy is useful in many disciplines, with the faculty applicants for this grant spanning the biology, chemistry, and physics departments. Keisuke Hasegawa, associate professor of physics, applies novel microscopy techniques to understand cellular processes that occur on scales typically too small to be seen. He is particularly interested in the assembly of microtubules, the protein chains that make up the skeletal structure of cells. With standard optical microscopes, light diffraction limits the sharpness of images and makes it impossible to clearly distinguish between proteins as tiny as those in microtubules. Using the new laser scanning confocal microscope, however, Hasegawa and his research students will be able to detect microtubule formation below the diffraction limit of light.

In addition to integrating the microscope into their research and existing coursework, the faculty recipients of this grant are developing a new course dedicated to the study of microscopy techniques. Alongside this class, they plan to host a workshop for faculty from other liberal arts colleges on the use of fluorescence microscopy at primarily undergraduate institutions. The instrument will also be incorporated into Grinnell’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program, providing opportunities for incarcerated students to analyze images obtained on the microscope.

Congratulations to Lindgren, Hasegawa, Lafontant, Praitis, Sandquist, and Levandoski on this exciting development!

About the National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation Grant

The Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) Program of the National Science Foundation supports the acquisition or development of multi-user scientific instruments too costly to be typically supported by other research granting programs. The program distributes approximately 150 grants of up to $4 million annually, funding research instrumentation and instrument development critical to fundamental science research and to training the next generation of scientists.

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