Louis LaPierre, a Lower Columbia College biology instructor, slides a sample of mustard pollen into the college’s newest piece of equipment, a Phenom XL scanning electron microscope.
The machine makes a soft whine as a vacuum seals its inner chamber before LaPierre navigates his onlookers on a magnified trip through a world of the infinitesimally small.
“When you look at it with the naked eye, it’s just yellow dust,” LaPierre said of the pollen. “Even when you look at it at 800 times, it appears as a smooth surface.”
At 17,000 times magnification, the pollen transforms into an unfamiliar landscape of tiny spiked balls.
Elizabeth McKinney, 20, said she’s never seen pollen up close like this.
“I’ve only ever seen illustrations of pollen and fruit flies; this is the first time I’ve ever seen an actual (live image),” she said.
McKinney is a biology student specializing in viruses and pathogenic bacteria. The new $130,000 microscope will provide her with a powerful tool to better understand the microscopic agents that are far too small to see with standard light microscopes. And it will magnify career and study opportunities for many LCC students — including those in art and trades.
The Phenom XL can magnify samples up to 105,000 times their actual size, about 100 times more magnifying power than a conventional microscope. The instrument uses a focused beam of negatively charged particles to “scan” the surface of the sample, producing signals that can be displayed on a computer screen. The instrument also has better resolution than a traditional light microscope because electrons have shorter wavelengths than light.
LCC purchased the machine with a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which helped the college buy a variety of new equipment for the Health and Science Building. The college got the grant as a way to boost employment opportunities for students.
LaPierre said it’s pretty unusual for community college students to get to use high-tech equipment like a scanning electron microscope.
“Having exposure to actually get hands-on time with an instrument like this … is something that sets LCC students apart from other students,” LaPierre said.
Science students are not the only beneficiaries of the technology, and the microscope has “cross-curricular application,” LaPierre said. Art majors, for example, can use the intense magnification as a new way to see and portray the natural world, and welders can use the machine to do breakage analysis and document the chemical makeup of metals and welds, he said.
For computer engineering major Austin Inman, 24, the machine will help him with an independent study he’s conducting about how chemicals and acid corrosion affect the computer equipment he works with. The microscope also allows him to scan corroded computer chips at a high resolution.
“Computer people need to know what can happen to the devices they are building,” said Armando Herbelin, chemistry faculty. “Especially (for) people heading to Intel or places like that, having that training early is great.”
Inman’s research may end up being an entryway into a professional career. Herbelin said a Turkey-based company that makes scientific equipment like the Phenom XL is interested in hiring students who understand how their devices operate — and who can develop experiments to teach others to do the same.
“This Turkey opportunity is something I will strive for just because no one else gets to do it,” Inman said. “To have the opportunity to do some sort of research that will be used by other people is interesting to me.”
Hereblin said it’s much easier to get jobs in “big science” than most of his Longview students think.
“I think our students often feel like it is so far away, when it’s only two steps: An LCC degree and ... the chance to work in a research lab as an undergraduate,” Hereblin said. “Growing up here in Longview, you can go everywhere.”
LaPierre and Herebelin said they are still planning experiments to introduce their students to the new microscope. LaPierre pointed to a pollen study as one place to start.
Different plants have different shapes and sizes of pollen granules, depending on how they are pollinated. Students could potentially investigate the pollination biology of native plants, LaPierre said.
“Mustard is open pollinated, so it’s spiky to help it adhere to the hairs on the bees that collect the pollen … Tomatoes actually self-pollinate,” he said, explaining how those pollen granules are oblong and relatively smooth.
While students could simply Google this information and related images, using the Phenom XL makes their research more engaging and meaningful, LaPierre said.
Hereblin added that the chance to use high-tech equipment — one they usually wouldn’t have until much later in their collegiate careers — gives students a “reason to stick it out for all those hours in the classroom.”