Feature Image (above): This historic photo shows WKU’s first transmission electron microscope, a Zeiss EM9 S2 in the first floor of Thompson Complex, north wing. The microscope is pictured with technician Rod McCurry (seated) and students. Image courtesy of Suellyn Lathrop, WKU archivist.
The 1957 Russian launch of Sputnik 1 into orbit caught America by surprise, initiating not only the race to the moon, but also a drive to improve all aspects of American science education. This far-reaching focus had not just a dramatic impact on elementary and secondary schools throughout the U.S., but also on a number of colleges and universities—including Western Kentucky University.
An unexpected windfall
Among other legislation, this latter goal included passage of the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963, signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson just three weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. From 1965 to 1967, funds allocated under this act helped to build and equip WKU’s Thompson Complex science buildings—the newly opened TCCW and the re-christened TCNW.
With this huge influx of funds for equipment (more than $4 million in today’s economy), one of the items purchased was among the more “high tech” equipment of the time: a transmission electron microscope, installed in TCNW in the summer of 1967. A technician, J. Rod McCurry, was hired the next year to oversee the microscope’s use. And over the next four decades, the electron microscopy facility flourished, thanks to a growing collection of instruments that included as many as four electron microscopes. These sophisticated pieces of equipment not only served WKU students and researchers, but also offered critical analysis capabilities to a variety of local industries.
Despite decades of demonstrable success, the on-campus electron microscopy facility teetered on the brink of closure when TCNW shuttered in January 2014. Under the leadership of Dr. Cheryl Stevens, Dean of Ogden College of Science and Engineering, the electron microscopy facility was instead moved to the basement of the newly built Snell Hall.
Both before and during the move, a consortium of Ogden College faculty submitted National Science Foundation grants for new microscopes in the hopes of upgrading the facility’s instrumentation. The successful grants included a $425,000 award for a new transmission electron microscope, installed in July 2014; and a $196,500 award for a new scanning electron microscope, installed in February 2015.
Now in its 50th year of existence, Ogden College’s electron microscopy facility continues to serve the university and region in exciting ways—and the best is yet to come.
Where education happens (and a fitting premonition)
Step into the electron microscopy facility on any given day and you’ll likely see students and researchers using the facility’s varied instrumentation.
“The primary purpose of the electron microscopy facility is education,” says John Andersland, Ph.D., facility coordinator. “It fulfills that mission by not only assisting students in their research, but also by being available for use in classes.”
WKU’s BIOL 404, “Introduction to Electron Microscopy,” is a prime example. This instructional course teaches students how to use all of the equipment in the Ogden College facility. Or, WKU students can opt to take informal “mini-courses,” which provide training on using the microscopes for research in a more condensed format.
The microscopes also provide invaluable firsthand experience that enriches and contextualizes classroom learning. In BIOL212, “Genome Discovery and Exploration,” for example, each student isolates and characterizes a bacteriophage (bacterial virus) from a soil sample of their choosing, then uses the transmission electron microscope to observe it.
“After spending a semester working with their bacteriophage, the opportunity to directly see what their isolate looks like can be an exciting and emotional experience,” Andersland says.
The sophisticated and wide-ranging capabilities of the electron microscopy facility also make it a powerful research asset. As Andersland explains, the transmission electron microscope “continues to be the best way to directly image nanometer-scale particles and structures. As long as an electron beam can penetrate a sample (usually if less than 100 nm thick), it can be imaged in the transmission electron microscope.”
Lab groups from WKU’s Biology, Chemistry and Physics departments all use the transmission electron scanning microscope for a variety of research.
“They image synthetic nanomaterials intended for use in devices ranging from solar cells to batteries and observe natural nanoparticles, specifically virus particles, to understand how viral genes influence their structures,” Andersland explains.
Another piece of the facility’s equipment, the scanning electron microscope, also offers capabilities that make it ideal for a wide range of analysis. The scanning electron microscope images the surfaces of three-dimensional structures by focusing the electron beam to a fine point. Then, that beam is scanned across a sample and the beam interacts with the atoms in the sample. Products of these interactions are detected for each point, converted into an electrical signal and used to determine the brightness of a corresponding pixel on a monitor — the more products detected, the brighter the on-screen pixel. An additional detector determines the elements present at each point.
“Laboratory groups from the departments of Architectural and Manufacturing Sciences, Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Engineering and Physics use the scanning electron microscope,” Andersland says. “Uses are incredibly varied, ranging from observing the structures on insect eggs to characterize species to evaluating the success in synthesizing nanoparticle films on surfaces.”
Given the educational opportunities and discoveries that are continually enabled by Ogden College, it’s almost eerie to read the prescient words of Marvin Russell, the first dean of Ogden College, as written in a 1965 memo and excerpted courtesy of Suellyn Lathrop, WKU archivist:
“I am strongly convinced that the adequate equipping of our Science Complex and of Thompson Hall with good facilities in the laboratory (including several key basic instrumental units, such as the electron microscope, etc.) will prove to be an outstanding investment in helping to make our faculty members more productive in every aspect relating to our science program at Western, and as it serves other programs and other functions of the college and the region.”
Growing awareness of a regional asset
Maintaining a facility that equips students and researchers with the tools they need to develop a successful body of work is a constant focus of WKU, and Ogden College is no exception. Yet the electron microscopy facility’s instrumentation and capabilities have proved to be an asset to area businesses, too, creating a mutually beneficial partnership that’s also helped advance the region.
More companies are turning to WKU and Ogden College for help with solving problems in product development and production. The scanning electron microscope is ideal for this sort of analysis, but many companies can’t justify the expense, especially with irregular use. That’s where Ogden College comes in.
“When a problem arises, an engineer can bring in the problem sample,” Andersland says. “The engineer provides the expertise around the problem, and the electron microscopy facility provides assistance in using the microscope.”
This sort of firsthand interaction is an especially valuable by-product of having a sophisticated electron microscopy facility in the western Kentucky region. Typically, companies might have to send a sample by mail to an out-of-state lab, then try and communicate with a technician over the phone to explain what they want. Instead, at WKU, businesses can send an engineer to the facility so they can explain the problem and then see the analysis results in real-time. This sometimes prompts the unexpected need for additional analysis to answer another question or challenge, but the research can immediately be adapted accordingly without costly or inefficient back-and-forth with someone who’s in another part of the country.
In the past year, Andersland says more than seven local companies took advantage of Ogden College’s research services. And as awareness of the facility’s capabilities continues to grow, that number is expected to increase. Making this sort of cutting-edge equipment available for business applications is also among the catalysts for economic development, an increasingly critical consideration as cities and regions compete to attract and retain businesses.
“It’s so important to have these capabilities locally,” Andersland says. “You don’t have to go to a large city to get your product analysis and research. Instead, look at what we can do for the community.”
Electron Microscopy at WKU: A timeline
The following timeline illustrates the evolution of WKU’s Ogden College, further contextualized with key news events.
Oct. 4, 1957: Sputnik 1 launched
Oct. 15, 1961: Dedication of Thompson Science Hall
Dec. 16, 1963: Higher Education Facilities Act signed into law
Mid-year 1965: Award of $1.2 million for the Thompson Science Complex with over $400,000 eventually used for laboratory equipment
June 1, 1965: Ogden, Potter and Education Colleges created
June 16, 1966: Western Kentucky State College becomes WKU
Summer 1967: First transmission electron microscope (TEM) installed, a Zeiss EM9 S2 purchased with $25,000 in funds from the Higher Education Facilities Act
Oct. 14, 1967: TCCW dedicated and Thompson Hall renamed TCNW
Sept. 1, 1968: J. Rod McCurry employed to run the new TEM
Feb. 1982: First scanning electron microscope (SEM) installed, an ISI Super IIIA purchased with a $30,000 grant from General Motors Corporation
Sept. 1987: A Philips 300B TEM purchased from Florida State University for $35,000
Nov. 1987: An X-ray elemental analysis system purchased for the SEM with a $32,100 grant from General Motors Corporation
March 1988: JEOL100B TEM donated by McCrone Environmental Services, Inc.
April 1992: A second JEOL 100B TEM transferred from the US-EPA in Cincinnati
April 18, 1995: A new JEOL 5400LV SEM with X-ray analysis system installed, purchased with funds from an NSF grant
Feb. 1998: John Andersland, Ph.D., hired as EM facility coordinator
March 30, 1999: A JEOL 120CX-ASID TEM installed, purchased from NIOSH of Morgantown, W.V., with funds from WKU-ARTP
Jan. 24, 2014: TCNW closed, electron microscopy facility moved to the basement of the new Snell Hall
July 9, 2014: A new JEOL 1400Plus TEM installed, purchased with funds from an NSF grant
Feb. 12, 2015: A new JEOL 6510LV with X-ray analysis system installed, purchased with funds from an NSF grant