Pointing to the framed blue morpho butterfly on her shelf, Dr. Deanna Soper explained how influential the newly-installed scanning electron microscope (SEM) will be in researching the color blue.
This June, the University of Dallas received confirmation from the W. M. Keck Foundation that the science departments would receive a $300,000 grant to purchase an SEM, maintain it and and fund a summer research project for three years, according to Fran Fisher, Foundation Relations director. The microscope was installed in the second floor of the Haggerty Science Center just last week.
The two-phase application process was executed by Dr. Ellen Steinmiller, associate professor of chemistry, Dr. Sally Hicks, interim dean of Constantin College, and Soper, assistant professor of biology.
“We started communicating with the Keck Foundation in August 2017,” Steinmiller said. “We found out in January [of 2018] that we had been invited to continue on to phase two.”
The months-long wait before discovering that the application was approved was worthwhile as it provided time for science professors across all disciplines to outline how they will use the SEM in research and in courses.
“The existing lab course, Integrated Science Laboratory: The Color Blue, will be expanded to investigate nanoscale structures that cause blue coloration,” reads the original grant abstract.
The naturally-occurring blue color, seen in butterfly wings for example, doesn’t arise from a pigment. Rather, it comes from structural interferences.
“The reason why the blue morpho butterfly’s wings are blue is because of the nanostructures,” Soper said. “If you were to cut them up, they’d no longer be blue.”
Using the SEM’s magnification and high resolution, professors and students will be able to see and study these nanoscale structures. The SEM will not only help with this course, but nearly every scientific discipline has thought of ways to utilize it.
“We’re also planning on using [the SEM] in instrumental analysis for chemistry majors and [in] our non-science majors’ forensic chemistry class,” Steinmiller said. “Also, the optics class in physics is going to use it.”
“In marine biology, we’re hoping to use [the SEM] for examining diatom structure,” Soper said. “Diatoms are microscopic organisms that live on the surface of oceans.”
While these plans for the SEM are orchestrated, another area of study for which the SEM will be useful came about organically.
For his own research, Dr. Drew Stenesen, assistant professor of biology, explained how, in an attempt to create a natural population of fruit flies, referred to as “flytropolis,” in order to observe randomization of their genes, another species of flies infiltrated the natural population.
“That species of fly, in a matter of four weeks, killed all of our fruit flies and took over flytropolis,” Stenesen said.
This occurred a couple of weeks ago, and Stenesen was able to use the SEM in order to observe specific structures on the unexpectedly-arising predatory flies.
“They have very interesting structures on their forelimbs: both the males and females seem to have this long bristle that looks like a lance that it might use to stab its prey,” Stenesen said.
Although the SEM is valuable in the research setting, Dr. William Cody, chair of the biology department, emphasized the practical advantage of simply knowing how to use an SEM.
“With the SEM, I think we could have a really interesting microscopy component [in the Experimental Techniques] class,” Cody said. “For a student applying to grad school, … [they could] start those labs with a lot of confidence, feeling like they already know a lot of these methods.”
“It’s really a game changing piece of equipment for the university,” Stenesen said. “It raises the bar for everyone.”
Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering and undergraduate education. The Foundation also maintains a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth. For more information, please visit www. wmkeck.org.