UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 1 | Jan.
Getting the Small Picture
BioImaging facility sees it all
By Michelle Cook
Elaine Humphrey sees a lot of strange things in her line
of work, but some of the requests she gets are even stranger
-- like the time a crew member on the X-Files called to borrow
some of Humphrey's creepy "bug" photos to
use in an episode of the popular sci-fi TV show.
Stranger still was the day a researcher from the Centre for
Disease Control asked her if he could come to her offices
to take some pictures of a new virus named SARS.
Fielding such diverse requests is all in a day's work
when you run UBC's BioImaging Facility, says Humphrey,
the unit's director since 1996.
It's the place where people go when they want to get
a picture -- a really good picture -- of what they're studying.
That includes everything from viruses and bacteria to human
brain tissue and the body parts of all kinds of garden crawlers
magnified to thousands of times their actual size.
The facility is tucked away, in classic horror movie fashion,
in a remote basement corner of the BioSciences Building. But
the strangest things in it are the images produced there with
the help of some of the most sophisticated microscopes, computers,
scanners and other magnification and digital photo production
equipment on the market.
On the walls are close-ups -- many of them taken by Humphrey
-- of python-sized millipedes, tarantula fangs, and a centimetre-long
poacher fish of dragon-like proportions. As for the SARS virus,
Humphrey says it wasn't so menacing to look at, even when
"It was just a blob with little blobs around it,"
says Humphrey. "Not nearly as gorgeous as the beautiful
crystalline structures of marine viruses that are brought
down from [microbiology and immunology and marine biology
professor Curtis] Suttle's lab to be photographed."
If Humphrey, who has a PhD in oceanography, sounds like she's
seen it all, she probably has -- at least when it comes to
the biological sciences research being done on campus.
Annually more than 650 researchers use the facility. On a
typical day, UBC's star microbiologist Brett Finlay
might drop by to do some work related to his research on the
SARS vaccine or E. coli bacteria, or leading immunologist
Wilf Jefferies could book time to produce images for his work
to combat immune disorders. Outside users -- from biotech
powerhouse QLT to local artisan cheese makers -- also pay
to use the equipment.
Humphrey is quick to point out that research isn't the facility's
only function. She and her staff are just as likely to be
found teaching a group of graduate students how to use the
Cryo scanning electron microscope to freeze and crack cells
open for examination, or giving a group of mesmerized school
children an introductory course on using an electron microscope
to do a little forensic detective work.
"It's exciting to look at viruses, it's exciting to
look at tissue, or inside a cell," says the ebullient
Humphrey. "There's so much inside a cell and when
you look at some of them you think ‘what on earth does
She adds that she wants students to feel the ‘wow'
factor of what's possible with such high-tech equipment
without feeling intimidated to use it.
The facility's education and training component is
important when you consider that the microscopes in question
don't look anything like those clunky black ones you
used in high school science class. Last year Humphrey spent
$2.25 million on new instruments. One of those was the field
emission scanning electron microscope (SEM). It fills an entire
room and can enlarge images 500,000 times.
Two of the facility's electron microscopes have telepresencing.
This allows a graduate student looking at a specimen in the
lab to discuss it with their supervisor in another location
in real time using an Internet connection.
Humphrey is eagerly awaiting the arrival of a variable pressure
SEM that can magnify wet materials like wood and food samples.
Also on her wish list is a 4D microscope (no one else in Canada
has one) that would be able to collect a stack of images in
With an infectious enthusiasm, Humphrey says her main goal
is to create a one-stop shop where all users can get advice
and access to the equipment necessary to produce the highest
resolution images possible.
After all, says Humphrey, "a picture tells a thousand
words. The SARS virus for instance, you can tell people about
it, over and over, and about sequencing the genome, but if
you can show them a picture, that gets them interested."
The BioImaging Facility will be opening a second "branch"
in the basement of UBC's soon-to-be completed Life Sciences