UMass’ Baskin wins grant for electron microscope

By Sam Butterfield

University of Massachusetts professor of biology Tobias Baskin has won a three-year, $511,143 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation program to acquire a high resolution scanning electron microscope for research between the Five Colleges.

Baskin, along with a team of four other UMass professors, Dhandapani Venkataraman from chemistry, Mike Jercinovic from geosciences, Sam Gido from polymer science and engineering and Joseph Goldstein from mechanical and industrial engineering, led the campaign to purchase the microscope.

Scanning microscopes, Baskin explained, allow researchers to use samples of any thickness of electron they choose by sending a beam of electrons across a sample, as opposed to transmission microscopes, which send a beam of electrons through the sample.

Though the distinction may seem small, it has great effects on research possibilities.

“By building up an image from the amount of scattered electrons at any one point, an image of the topography of the sample is obtained,” Baskin said.

“Because the beam does not have to go through the material, samples of any thickness can be used,” he furthered, “because the instrument doesn’t focus the scattered electrons to make an image, but instead just counts how many there are at each point, the instrument has an intrinsically large depth of field,” he went on.

Baskin elaborated that developments in the resolution of scanning microscopes have greatly enhanced their efficacy.

“Over the past few decades, the instruments have advanced spectacularly, to the point where they can image almost to the level of atoms,” he said.

He continued to say that winning the grant gives UMass great flexibility in its research capabilities, as the University had not purchased a scanning electron microscope for some time.

“Although we have some excellent transmission electron microscopes, we hadn’t bought a scanning electron microscope for years,” said Baskin. “This was preventing many kinds of investigations from going forward or forcing some of us to go off-campus to use facilities elsewhere,” he continued.

Steve Ellis, a program manager at the National Science Foundation who recommended the group be awarded the grant, said the foundation chose to fund the acquisition because of the applicants’ solid track record in research and because of its possibilities for multi-dimensional research.

“The proposal was selected for funding because it demonstrated technical expertise, the applicants have a well-established history of involvement with broadening participation activities and it provided convincing preliminary data to document feasibility for a compelling blend of interdisciplinary projects that will utilize the new electron microscope,” he said.

As for the possibilities for research with the new microscope, Baskin said they are highly varied.

“The polymer scientists and chemists are interested in manipulating matter at what is now called the “nano-scale,” he said, “there seems to be the potential for a large number of devices that can be made by working at the nano-scale.”

“There are ideas for making better photovoltaic cells, memory storage devices, water proof fabric, and much else,” he enumerated, continuing to say that in his field, he hopes to work on examining plant cell walls.

“I am a biologist and interested in the structure of the plant cell wall,” he said, “this wall controls the growth of the plant and understanding its structure is essential to understand morphogenesis.”

The microscope the group will be obtaining is called the Magellan, made by Oregon-based FEI Co. According to Baskin, the microscope has “the best published specifications for resolution of any currently available scanning electron microscope.”

The microscope will be housed on-campus in the Conte Polymer Research Center, and will be operational by the end of next January. The microscope will be available for use by anyone within the Five Colleges.

Sam Butterfield can be reached at [email protected]