Dr. Christopher Hardy’s seven-year cliffhanger will finally come to its conclusion.
Hardy, a biology professor at Millersville University (MU), was working on identifying a new species of plant through the University’s scanning electron microscope. In 2012, the microscope stopped working, leaving Hardy’s work unattended for seven years and counting.
That’s all going to change soon, with a $287,234 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant proposal was three years in the making, said Dr. Maria Schiza, a professor in the chemistry department and Principal Investigator (PI) on the grant. The co-PI’s include Hardy, Drs. Charlton Wolfgang and Jeremiah Mbindyo. Three professors who work at neighboring institutions also contributed to the proposal.
The grant will help Millersville acquire a new Scanning Electron Microscope. The instrument will be a strategic resource for Millersville and the surrounding community by advancing scientific inquiries and driving collaborative research among academic institutions and industry.
“Along with benefits for Millersville, the microscope will provide us the opportunity to work with local schools and programs,” said Wolfgang, an assistant professor and coordinator of the master’s in gifted education program. Wolfgang is also responsible for educational outreach. Included in the grant proposal were ideas on how the new microscope can benefit Lancaster County schools and non-profits like the North Museum and Lancaster Science Factory.
“We have a tradition of strength in the sciences and education at Millersville,” Hardy said. “There is a real need to be able to expose our students to this added level of sophistication and research. This takes our microscopy here on campus to whole other levels, into the realm of imaging with electrons and resolving features on the scale of micrometers to nanometers with magnifications well beyond those capable with traditional light microscopes.”
“When we heard we got approval, it was like a dream come true,” Schiza added.
The biggest difference between light microscopes, which are abundantly available on campus, and the new electron microscope is the magnifying power. The highest magnifications attainable with the light microscope are around 1,000 times. The electron microscope can attain magnifications higher than 300,000 times, allowing users to discern tiny nanostructures.
This is beneficial for everyone involved, Schiza said. It allows students to work with and understand the functionality of a state-of-the-art, advanced microscope while studying structures that previously couldn’t be seen.
Professors can also advance their research. Hardy, for example, can continue classifying his new species of plant. Mbindyo, a professor in the chemistry department, is developing engineered metal nanostructures that make industrial chemical processes more green and sustainable by using inexpensive metals as catalysts. In addition, he is researching biodegradable nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery.
The new microscope can better analyze their research and increases the likelihood of publishing their findings.
Having an in-house microscope will also improve the way professors teach. Previously, analyzing research involved traveling to Hershey, Philadelphia or Delaware to use a microscope. It involved planning ahead in the semester so students could organize rides and take time off from work.
“Since the old microscope lost functionality, doing the research in-house has not been easy,” Mbindyo said. “You have to plan weeks in advance. The new instrument can change that. You can make your samples and analyze them with within a day, gaining useful information to advance the research.”
Wolfgang added that the new microscope opens up a world of possibilities for not just Millersville students and faculty, but the local community.
“That’s why I’m so excited about getting this machine, is that we have this incredible device to bring students to campus, for them to be able to work with, to introduce them to microscopy, which is maybe a field they never considered before,” Wolfgang said. “The average student doesn’t understand the capabilities of an SEM and what we can do with it. They may have seen images somewhere but they don’t associate it with that device. I’m excited to open this whole new world to these students.”
The staff is still in the process of picking the exact model of microscope they want. Once that is determined, they will have to find a room to place it in. The microscope is expected to be in use by the 2020 fall semester.