Digital image analysis plays major role in training and research at Michigan State University
Research labs everywhere are familiar with this scenario: There’s never enough money available for acquiring new equipment. Keeping up-to-date with the latest technology while staying within budget means creative, long-term investment planning. A good example of this can be found at Michigan State University’s Center for Advanced Microscopy whose successful strategy has transformed outdated analog microscopes into digital imaging powerhouses. These revamped microscope systems now facilitate training and research involving all kinds of digital image analysis.
A Multitude of Microscopes
Dr. Stanley L. Flegler is Director of the Center for Advanced Microscopy (CAM) at Michigan State University (MSU) in Lansing. CAM evolved from the university’s original electron microscopy lab founded in 1957 and has become the central hub for microscopy on the campus today. With its state-of-the-art labs it is one of the most highly regarded centers in the country. Flegler and his team are responsible for two scanning electron microscopes (SEM), two transmission electron microscopes (TEM), one scanning probe microscope (SPM) and three confocal laser scanning microscopes (CLSM). Researchers and students alike take advantage of CAM’s services for furthering their research and to take part in the many microscopy courses offered.
Figure 1: Dr. Stanley L. Flegler (right) is the director of the Center for Advanced Microscopy (CAM) at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan. Working daily with researchers and students, he observes how using a microscope cum computer to analyze digital images is increasing in popularity, and how interest keeps growing with every microscopy related course offered.
Avoiding a Budget Crunch
Not all the equipment in CAM can be called brand new. The center uses, for example, SEM’s from the late 1980’s. Flegler saw the need to make their potential extend into the next century. Keeping books balanced while maintaining the high reputation of the center is a job taken very seriously by this director. At the annual meeting of the Microscopy Society of America, he met with Dr. Mike Bode, Manager of Olympus Soft Imaging Solutions Corp. It was through this meeting that Flegler got interested in Olympus Soft Imaging Solutions products and the opportunities they opened up for CAM. Fleger’s resolve to bring these products to Michigan State University was cemented during a follow-up visit to the Kodak lab in New York where the image analysis software Scandium could be seen in action. In the spring of 2000, CAM acquired its first Scandium license followed soon thereafter by an ADDA interface for digitizing the SEM’s. In the summer of 2002, one of the TEM’s was given a digital makeover: the high-resolution digital camera MegaView III was installed, thus enabling images acquired with the electron microscope to be transmitted directly to a PC for immediate processing - via the TEM platform iTEM.
Figure 2: Older analog scanning electron microscopes needn’t be relegated to the scrap heap. The ADDA II interface (see box on right behind the stuffed dinosaur) can help make the leap into the digital age: The microscope turns into a fully digital tool whose electron beam can be controlled through the software interface.
Bridging the Gap
The abbreviation ADDA stands for Analog-Digital / Digital-Analog converter. The ADDA II interface connects an analog SEM to a digital PC, thus allowing the microscope and computer to communicate with each other. For example, ADDA II reads the analog electric currents of electrons bouncing off the specimen and changes them into digital images that show up on the PC screen, enabling further processing in no time at all. Going the other way, ADDA II controls the SEM’s electron beam by converting the digital control commands of the software into analog command signals. This is how an analog SEM can become a pivotal part of a digital imaging system. Developing photos becomes a thing of the past while the wealth of possibilities offered through digital image analysis opens up the future.
More Users per Microscope
Upgrading the microscopes was well worth it in Dr. Flegler’s opinion, and not just because of the relatively low costs involved, but also due to the growth in the center’s popularity. In the past fall trimester alone, over 150 researchers from 45 different departments used the equipment in CAM – from molecular biologists to mechanical engineers. This was possible through the improved resource sharing that comes from going digital. Thanks to digital image acquisition, users no longer have to sit in front of the microscope while analyzing their images. They now simply place their high-resolution digital images on the hard disk of a network computer. Once the images have been acquired, the user can go to a networked PC in another room to access them for further processing, thus freeing up the microscope for others. Work at the microscope becomes more time-efficient while more people are able to sign up for the coveted microscope time blocks.
Figure 3: The MegaView III digital camera attached to a transmission electron microscope. The camera is side-mounted onto the wide-angle port. Pressurized air is used to move the prism into the beam path of the microscope. The electrons are then captured on the intermediate image plane and the image is transmitted directly to the PC by the camera.
Dr. Flegler’s original goal of rejuvenating CAM’s two analog SEM’s has thus expanded to include upgrading the TEM and digitizing workflow within the lab in general. He and his team are confident that demand for the digitally upgraded microscopes will continue to grow. To make sure those who use a CAM microscope will make productive use of their time, TEM and SEM courses in which products from Soft Imaging System play an important role are offered to people from all departments of the university. As Flegler observes, digital microscopy is an area that has been booming for several years, and a growing user base ensures that software-supported image analysis will remain a significant part of research for long to come. In order to cultivate support for this growing field, the CAM team is currently hard at work developing the curriculum for a course to be offered for the first time at MSU on image analysis.
Dr. Stanley L. Flegler, Director of the Center for Advanced Microscopy at Michigan State University, USA