tís one thing to read about and see photographs of Pfiesteria piscicida, the toxic, fish-killing dinoflagellates that N.C. State botany professor Dr. JoAnn Burkholder discovered in the early í90s. Itís quite another to actually see a videotaped image of the living, microscopic creature ó to watch it moving about in its amoeboid state, capturing and consuming the flagellated form of its own kind.
But thatís exactly what N.C. State students and visitors were able to do at the February open house for the universityís new video microscopy and imaging laboratory in 3115 Gardner Hall.
Certainly the part-plant, part-animal Pfiesteria was a symbolically fitting choice to be among the displays at the event: The renovation of the old teaching laboratory, sponsored by the College, was implemented by the departments of Zoology and Botany.
That teamwork has led to the creation of a facility to allow training in contemporary techniques for biologists of the future through integration of wet labs, modern microscopy, cameras and computer technology.
"Itís a collaboration between botany and zoology thatís been excellent," says Dr. Margaret Daub, head of the Department of Botany. "Weíve both needed this for our students. By working together, we can teach a series of classes with a nice mix of equipment. Itís great that students can access this technology at an undergraduate level and learn techniques they normally would not have access to unless they were involved in research in a graduate-level lab."
"This is a lab that is unique on campus," says Dr. Thurman Grove, head of the Department of Zoology. "Weíve put this on campus to provide students access to a high level of digital imaging and experience in manipulation of that imaging. This is a lab environment giving students state-of-the-art imaging capabilities and the experience of using these sophisticated tools and interactive processes. Undergraduate students are given tools and experience to be competitive when they go out to RTP and other places."
To Dr. George Barthalmus, College associate dean and director of Academic Programs, the lab is also a giant step in the right direction. Barthalmus sees the renovation and opening of the lab as highly significant on two fronts: it shows the potential of refitting dated facilities for high-tech use, and it makes available advanced experiential learning opportunities for undergraduates.
"Itís a milestone that we hope will be one of many," he says, explaining that this lab started off with ideas from two researchers, Dr. Betty Black, professor of zoology, and Dr. Nina Allen, professor of botany.
"From my point of view, it takes faculty who have the creativity and the research talent to create something like this," he says. "It comes from faculty who exist in a research setting and have the depth of knowledge to take what they do in research and make it available to students. A Research I institution must be committed to undergraduate research experiences."
To create the settings for those experiences, Barthalmus says, "We need to take rooms and gut them and redesign them to do state-of-the-art things in as flexible a way as possible so that a variety of courses can use them. We need biotech kinds of spaces, so these advanced technologies can be taught in a room appropriate to do it.
"Identifying space is the key óand doing it now! Renovation is the only thing we can do. We canít lose our niche waiting for new buildings. And incremental success is how it has to be done. I want to see these labs popping up one at a time, and they will fuel so much enthusiasm and so many satisfied customers weíll get the funds to put them everywhere.
"For example, here were two departments working together and combining funds for the common good."
With marvelous results, he says: "We took an absolutely horrendous room ó3115 Gardner is a room that I taught vertebrate zoology in for years and years. It was the sorriest excuse for a room," he says. "And while itís not beautiful even today, itís now wonderfully functional."
Indeed, on first impression the room still has an old lab feel; an alumnus from the í70s can feel transported back to those old Zoology 304 labs ó that is, until this reverie is intruded upon by the anachronistic presence of high-tech workstations, with their "floating" flat-screen Macintosh monitors, throughout the room.
Now, the new video microscopy lab more than fulfills Barthalmusí vision of what the classrooms and labs of the future must be: "dynamos of interaction."
At a work area used for wet lab exercises, a traditional dissection exercise can take place on one side of the table. Mounted at the center of the table, the flat-screen monitors face the opposite side, separating the space, but intermingling the old and new methodologies.
"We actually worked with a cabinet maker to custom-design these desks," Grove explains. "This is one of the best solutions that Iíve seen. The flat-screen technology solves so many problems for us."
That particular innovation was the brainchild of Dr. Betty Black, working with Hal Meeks of University Information Technology, Users Services. Meeks provided the audio track and user interface for some of the labís interactive programs, and he came up with the arm to accommodate Blackís idea of the floating screen. "The key thing was determining where to put the monitors so that we could still use the area as a wet lab," Black explains. "Having a flat panel on an arm gets it off the table. We just turn the monitors inward and the screen is protected when the wet lab is needed."
Black teaches undergraduate laboratories in developmental anatomy and histology in the room. These courses integrate the studies of anatomy, embryology and histology and are taken by many undergraduates who plan to enter medical or veterinary fields.
Laboratory exercises require students to work in pairs to capture, label and analyze both still images and video clips. Material for imaging includes slides of tissue sections, as well as preserved and live embryos. Networking via Timbuktu software allows students to send images to one another and share their work in formal class presentations.
An overall tour of the lab starts with an instructorís mobile computer and video stereoscope and extends to the 10 student work-stations equipped with high-quality microscopes, color video cameras and networked Macintosh computers. The instructorís computer can pull material from the Web and distribute it to students through the Timbuktu software.
"Every student essentially gets hands-on experience," says Black. "Whenever we use microscopes, itís video microscopy. They almost never look through the eyepieces. Theyíre looking at the screen. I cannot imagine going back to looking at slides the old way."
In fact, when Black taught in the room in spring of í99, before renovation was complete, "the first half of the semester was the old way and the second was the new, so students could really see the difference. The students would no longer leave lab early, they were more interested, and they enjoyed it more," she recalls.
"Now, it is just more meaningful."
Instead of the old-fashioned procedure of hand-drawing the image they see in the microscope, the students save the image to a Zip disk, or they capture it on short video clips to share with their classmates. "At the same time theyíre learning to use the equipment, they develop collaborative and communication skills through these new methods of presentation," Black says. "And none of these things could be done before."
Furthermore, she adds, students are getting a value-added dividend: "Out in the world, video microscopy is the thing."
Dr. Nina S. Allen reiterates that point in describing the rewards for her students: "Itís teaching them an important skill, computer-assisted imaging, that will help them get good jobs. Surely these students will have an edge when they go out because they will have these cutting- edge capabilities. They learn all the different cameras, the computer programs and the basic microscopy. Once they have a digital image, they must learn how to manipulate it, print it out and make videos."
Allen teaches the video microscopy course Botany 590V in the lab, where she says, "My primary goal is to be able to educate graduate and undergraduate students in the latest methods of photonic imaging."
She explains that her course covers a variety of subjects, beginning with the traditional physics of light and optics, microscope construction and use, and the various types of microscopy, and ending with recently developed modes of imaging such as near-field scanning, confocal laser scanning, atomic force and multiphoton microscopy.
"Through various laboratory exercises and projects, video microscopy students will become proficient with every type of microscopy and many specimen preparation methods," she says.
"That means they need computer skills, they need to understand the physics behind the microscope. And you have to have the equipment that gives you the images. You canít learn this from a book.
"Seeing is believing."
n open house day, at the instructorís station, a flat panel monitor shows a living, 4-day-old chicken embryo. "The advantage of this is the entire circulatory system is intact for the observer to see," Black says. But equally as impressive as the image are the ways available to see it: The video camera on the stereoscope at the station has two outputs ó the flat panel display and a large monitor, so thereís simultaneously a big live image as well as a smaller captured video clip.
At the other end of the lab, a microscopic plant is on screen, as Allen explains for guests how students accomplished the real time imaging, recording and manipulating of Nitella, a giant alga cell, as well as student Matt Parrowís capture and video imaging of the live Pfiesteria amoeba.
Allen, who holds a 1981 patent on video microscopy, was among the first to take the video camera and adapt it to computer imaging techniques. She previously set up a lab like this at Wake Forest University, and there is also a similar facility at Duke. But Allen indicates that N.C. Stateís is probably the most advanced of the three "because this is five years newer and this field is moving so fast. This is probably one of the best such labs in the country."
Allen also directs the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility, a lab specializing in imaging dynamic events in living cells. It is available primarily for use by faculty members and undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students involved in grant-related research. However, with the opening of the new 3115 lab, Allen is able to share some of the specialized microscopes between facilities for certain student projects, "especially those involving undergraduates," she says.
"I would love to see every student in this university having access to labs like the video microscopy and imaging facility and getting their hands on equipment being used in real [private sector] labs. Itís really exciting to watch students take hold of the digital imaging and know they can work with the image and produce something publishable."
More importantly, Allen says, that ability is going to be in demand: "With the genomic revolution, we will need to image all those genes and their products in cells over time ó and we will need people to have the skills to do so."
Allen hopes soon to see an imaging minor offered on campus. "This is definitely what we need
Meanwhile, Allenís more immediate goal is enhancing the equipment with on-going fund-raising efforts.
Black likewise intends "to ask for a few more items. I want to do some cell culture lab exercises, so I want to get an inverted microscope." (Itís needed to see the bottom of the dish where the cells reside and to capture those on video.)
Once youíve got video microscopy, Black says, it paves the way for such adaptations and expansions.
The next step is to ask George Barthalmus.
"Tell me what you need to do the very best state-of-the art production" is Barthalmusí message to College faculty members. "Let me worry about finding the resources. Thatís my job. Your job is to tell me what you need to make our students successful."
Barthalmus cautions that such requests should not be stifled because departmental staff members think theyíll never be able to afford what they need. He tells them, "Donít stall! ó because it can happen. When I get a good idea coming in from faculty, I canít say no. I want to know what you need in order to do the very best job."
"How can you teach space-age soil scientists or plant biologists or biochemists in laboratories that were made for the 1900s? Itís just not the way to go. We have to look at our curricula and ask what must we do to do the very best for our students, academically and experientially."