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Olin Welcomes New Electron Microscope

On the 4th floor of the Academic Center at Olin College, nestled in the back of small room sits a new arrival--an electron microscope. The $250,000 piece of hardware, replaces an older version that arrived on campus not long after Olin first started teaching students.



“It’s a pretty amazing instrument,” said Matt Neal, Olin’s Materials Science and Chemistry Lab Director. The electron microscope uses a beam of electrons to create an magnified image of the specimen up to 100,000 times larger than the naked eye can perceive. The original microscope had similar capabilities, but it wasn’t as easy to use, and didn’t have as many features. “It was adequate, except it broke down a lot,” Neal laughed. “And it was twelve, thirteen years old. That’s a long time in the software world.”


While many schools have electron microscopes, in most cases the technology is reserved for graduate students. In fact, Neal remembers he wasn’t allowed to touch an electron microscope until he became a graduate student. At Olin, however, undergraduates are hands on and so able to use this high-tech device for coursework and research. “It gives students a really good window into the microscopic world, not only to visualize it, but also to do some analysis,” said Neal.


This scanning electron microscope shoots an electron beam down at the specimen. A series of electromagnetic coils pull the beam back and forth, scanning it rapidly across the specimen’s surface. When the electron beam strikes the specimen some electrons are scattered backward and some other electrons are released from the specimen. Each of these groups of electrons are collected and analyzed by their own detectors. The result is a TV-like image that is viewed on a monitor and can be captured digitally.  

For example, the microscope allows students to identify the chemical composition of virtually any specimen. To demonstrate, Neal put a piece of glass into the system to show how it works.  After pressing a few buttons and tweaking a few nobs, the readout analyzed the glass and showed silicon, sodium, calcium, and oxygen.


The image is integrated into the motorized stage navigation system, so that the user clicks on the image to make the stage move to the right spot. “With the sample in the microscope, we’re way zoomed in, so you can’t really see where you are. Take a picture of the entirety of the sample, you can use that picture to navigate around the sample when we’re in the microscope,” said Neal.  


This past semester the microscope featured prominently in Professor Helen Donis-Keller’s course “The Intersection of Art, Biology and Technology” where students analyzed small objects from bugs to acorns in the microscope and then used the resulting printout of the object to create a work of art. Those photographs now line the second floor of the Academic Center.


As the microscope is fairly new, faculty are still working through how it will be used in research. Its use, however, will be incorporated into several courses this fall.