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Tiny world of microscopy opens up giant career prospects

Here are five reasons why CMU program deserves a hard look

Contact: Curt Smith


Remember the first time you looked at a leaf or an anthill through a magnifying glass? Or a fly's wing through a science-class microscope? Multiply that thrill by 3 million times.

That's what undergraduates in Central Michigan University's microscopy program experience when they take the controls of powerful electron microscopes in the university's new Biosciences Building — equipment that students at other schools might not get to touch until grad school.

And that's not all. Students can use the microscopes to get a leg up in the job world or make a difference with real-world research.

In fact, there are at least five big reasons CMU microscopy (my-CROS-kuh-py) is tough to beat:

Employers really like the sheepskin

As employers pore over the résumés of recent graduates, a bachelor of science degree with a microscopy emphasis is a rare find.

Technically, CMU students seeking careers involving microscopes receive a bachelor's degree in biology with a concentration in microscopy.

"Students in this program typically have a job as they walk out the door," said Joanne Dannenhoffer, a biology faculty member who teaches microscopy classes and advises students on coursework and career opportunities.

And what kind of jobs are out there?  CMU alumni have gone on to work at microscopy labs and medical centers at prestigious schools such as Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University and the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. The National Institutes of Health, Bridgestone Corp. and Dow Chemical Co. also have hired CMU microscopy grads.

 

You get to work with the experts on your own research

The specific microscopy classes aren't the only factor in making this a winning program. Undergrads have to complete a research project, using a microscope under a mentor's guidance, before receiving a degree.

"They're quite capable when they leave here," Dannenhoffer said.

First-year graduate student Devon Leroux said it's not unusual to take a course and forget a lot of material once the semester ends. Not so in microscopy.

That's because a lot of the knowledge gained is used over and over again, especially with that undergraduate research project requirement.

"You're really forced to apply the skills you've learned in class," Leroux said. "Parts of your research will require some of that microscopy experience, and so you're an asset while you're still an undergrad."

And what aspect of microscopy does he enjoy the most?

"When you use all these different kinds of microscopes and you see these different tissues in different ways, it's pretty cool," Leroux said.

"It's definitely a valuable experience."

You get to use some really cool stuff

All together, CMU has close to 200 microscopes, but the superstars are the four on the first floor of the Biosciences Building.

According to Philip Oshel, director of CMU's electron microscope facility, one is a scanning electron microscope that focuses on surface features and produces 3-D-like images.

"You also get X-rays, whose energies depend on the element in the sample," Oshel said. "Therefore, you can map the distribution of elements within a sample."

In other words, it's possible to determine the sample's exact composition.

"It's very big in minerology, geology and biology," he said.

Microscopy Biosciences Research thumb.jpgAnother is a transmission electron microscope that views very thin sections of tissue. It can produce images of bacteria, cells and viruses.

The TEM has a magnification power of up to 3 million times, Oshel said.

There also are two confocal microscopes that, as Dannenhoffer explained, use fluorescent dyes to label specific things such as proteins. One is for research, the other for instruction.

Because even the slightest vibrations mess with the sensitive devices, the four microscopes are set on their own foundations within the Biosciences Building, which has 14-inch thick concrete floors and 155 concrete supports, 30 feet deep, to reinforce the whole structure.

"Vibrations are a big deal," Oshel said.

There's always a microscope that's just right for you

All of the microscopes get plenty of use. Dannenhoffer and her student researchers study sections of corn kernels in an effort to provide larger and more nutritious corn for both humans and animals. Corn also is used to produce ethanol.  

Other faculty members spearhead research in the development of organisms and the aging of egg cells, which could lead to new findings in the area of reproduction.

Students and professors from other areas of study, such as chemistry and neuroscience, also use the microscopes. People also drop by from the College of Medicine.

In addition, CMU's microscopes have been applied to natural resources studies and Great Lakes research, Dannenhoffer said.

You're not just a number

Leroux, of Warren, Michigan, hopes one day to land an industrial research job. He received a bachelor's degree in biology at CMU with a concentration in microscopy.

At CMU, the class sizes themselves are microscopic, with about a dozen students. That's just fine with Leroux.

"I've never been in a smaller class," he said. "You have abundant one-on-one time time with your professor. It's pretty unique."


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