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Undergraduate research scholars at UNCP benefit from advanced microscopy training

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Michelle Itano, the UNC Neuroscience Microscopy Core Facility Director and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Imaging Scientist.
Dr. Michelle Itano, a renowned Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Imaging Scientist, gives a presentation to UNCP researchers during a microscopy training session

Student researchers at UNC Pembroke are benefiting from a unique opportunity this summer to experience advanced research through the lens of a state-of-the-art Structured Illumination Microscopy system, thanks to a partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense.

The training program also received a small grant from BioImaging North America, a volunteer-based organization that supports bioimaging scientists in order to promote an inclusive and supportive community to share, advance and succeed together.

More than two dozen undergraduates, recent graduates and faculty recently participated in a first-ever high‐resolution microscopy and imaging system training at the Biotechnology Research and Training Center.

The three-day program organized by UNCP’s Michael Almeida featured speakers from Nikon Instruments and an elite group of microscopy experts from New York University, UNC Wilmington, UNC-Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University.

A virtual session was led by Dr. Alison North, senior director of the Bio-Imaging Resource Center at Rockefeller University and internationally renowned in microscopy. Joining North’s virtual presentation was Dr. Cori Bargmann, an internationally recognized neurobiologist and geneticist who leads the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Science work and is the sister of former UNCP professor Monika Brown.

“Our prime concern here is to train the next generation of scientists,” said Dr. Ben Bahr, the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry.

“With technology advancing so fast, we must get students prepared for the new techniques with the new instruments. This training program gives them all the tools not to be intimidated when they see the next level of instrumentation.”

Participants were introduced to the basic principles of microscopy and the various microscopes that are typically used in research.

Nikki Clayman, who graduated in May, plans to apply these newly acquired techniques in veterinarian school.

“In undergrad, we worked with the basic Brightfield microscope, which is what you use with the standard foundations of science. However, if you are going into research and you want to see things you cannot see with the naked eye, then the high-resolution microscopy is the foundation for that,” Clayman said.

The U.S. Army and the Department of Defense have partnered with Bahr and his UNCP Biotech Center team since 2014. Bahr’s group has since received two awards from the DOD Research and Education Program for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions for training and equipment, through grants prepared by Bahr, Dr. Karen Faizatto and Almeida, the center’s lab manager. UNCP’s two high-powered systems are valued at $1.5 million.

The program aims to increase the number of graduates, including underrepresented minorities, in science, technology, engineering and math.

“This latest confocal microscope we received last year is one of the top models with the new technology that uses lasers and has super-resolution,” Dr. Bahr said. “Students can see deeper and deeper into tissues and individual cells.”

Another high-profile presenter was Michelle Itano, the UNC Neuroscience Microscopy Core Facility Director and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Imaging Scientist.

“Microscopy is one of the fastest-growing fields, so we need curious minds from different backgrounds to develop new ideas and ways to apply them because we have technological developments that are letting us go further, deeper and faster than ever before,” Itano said. “What we need are the questions and students are the best for that. They bring a unique perspective and let us ask questions that maybe the field itself hadn’t been focused on yet.”

Aaron Bonner-Wright, a junior, said the training allowed him to network and connect with individuals who can help guide his future career.

“Even if I decide not to pursue a career in microscopy, it teaches me techniques I’ll use later. I’ll also be able to talk with people who share similar ideas and experiences,” he said.