Pooling for Strength: New Optical Imaging Center Creates One-Stop Scientific Shop for Researchers

Tuesday, April 20 2010

In a step designed to both create greater work efficiencies and increase collaborations, the University of Idaho has created an Optical Imaging Center: a centralized service center designed to meet the advanced optical microscopy needs of all faculty and students.

The center, currently housed in the Agricultural Biotechnology and Life Science South buildings and developed through a vision by the Office of Research, will host a wide assortment of fluorescence microscopes, laser confocal microscopes and expert staffing to provide assistance from project conception to publication. The equipment comes from numerous small equipment grants from sources such as the National Institutes of Health, the M.J. Murdoch Charitable Trust, the IDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) and the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) funds, as well as from various sources on campus.

“Holistically, the creation of the Optical Imaging Center will improve the University of Idaho’s research infrastructure, provide new opportunities for all Idaho faculty and students, and improve our financial situation through savings and improved funding opportunities,” says Jack McIver, vice president for research. “Additionally, the center will provide a new opportunity for researchers to work together and discover opportunities for collaboration.”

“This kind of imaging equipment is expensive and complex,” says Onesmo Balemba, assistant professor in biological sciences and director of the new center. Balemba is also a faculty partner in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho medical education program -- known as WWAMI. “We will provide an opportunity to new investigators, as well as veteran investigators to test novel ideas/ explore new areas of research by performing preliminary experiments on these complex machines without initially making a major financial investment; hence enhance their funding possibilities”.

The center hosts a wide range of fluorescent microscopes, which use fluorescent markers to examine the inner workings of biological systems in real time. Some of the more unique instruments include:
  • A laser micro-dissection system that uses a laser to isolate cells or organelles for further processing to determine RNA, DNA or protein content
  • A confocal microscope with six laser lines - unique in the northwest region - that takes pictures of three-dimensional objects on many different planes, which then are reconstructed by advanced software into a digital image.
  • A fluorescence stereo microscope

The center also will provide advanced software and expertise in using all of the available equipment to help researchers, “from experimental design to final image processing and analysis,” as Ann Norton, research associate and manager of the new center, puts it.

Use of the facilities will be on a fee-for-service basis. Fees will help purchase new software, upgrades and new equipment, maintain all of the equipment and keep the center staffed with experts ready to help less-experienced users. The center also will provide many unique opportunities for research and experience to students. While no academic courses are currently affiliated with learning to use the microscopes, Norton hopes to change that in the future.

"The center gives students opportunities they wouldn’t normally have. Even undergraduates are using this very sophisticated equipment. It is a powerful technical expertise to have and it will promote investigative career goals," says Norton. “The variety of microscopy tools in the Center will also help investigators explore equipment possibilities before they make purchasing decisions for their own laboratories.”