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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 1 | Jan. 8, 2004

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 enlarged.

"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 that do?"

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 seconds.

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 Centre.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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