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Revolutionary Microscope to Make Home at UNLV

The university won a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to house a new multiphoton laser-scanning microscope, the first of its kind in Nevada.

Campus News  |  Sep 25, 2017  |  By Francis McCabe
Scientist lifting test tubes.

Laurel Raftery, associate professor, School of Life Sciences (UNLV Photo Services / R. Marsh Starks)

UNLV has won a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to house a new multiphoton laser-scanning microscope, the first of its kind in the state.

Life Sciences professor Laurel Raftery, who was the lead writer for the grant, said the microscope “will allow us to study living systems at new levels of sensitivity and depth. It’s like going from two dimensions to three dimensions, or going from a still photograph to a movie.”

The microscope, which is complicated to build, isn’t expected to arrive on campus until spring semester. And then there’s a bunch of training that has to take place before it’s ready to use.

The advanced technology on this microscope will allow professors, researchers, and graduate and undergraduate students to obtain images from living tissues at 1 millimeter, Raftery said.

UNLV’s existing confocal laser scanning microscope can only image into tissues at a depth of 30 micrometers, meaning a multiphoton microscope gets focused images at about 30 times the depth than a confocal can achieve.

Another improvement for the new microscope over current technology on campus is that it won’t cause tissue damage as quickly . The new system operates differently, enabling thick tissues live much longer without damage. “Right now, we can only image living cells for a short amount of time,” Raftery said. “Previously, time-lapse videos require longer intervals between snapshots, compared to the new multiphoton microscope system, which could take snapshots every 15 seconds.”

The new technology has radically changed brain and other types of research, she said.

Raftery expects that having the microscope on campus will go a long way in recruiting leading scientists to come to UNLV. She said she has graduate students who can’t wait to start using it.

“It’s going to allow us to do some experiments we’ve been wanting to do for a while. I have two graduate students with projects that will immediately benefit from using it,” she said.

The biologist added that a number of UNLV’s colleges are expected be major users of the new technology, including the College of Sciences, the College of Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts, and the School of Medicine.

“I expect that the multiphoton microscope will be valuable in recruiting new researchers to the UNLV School of Medicine, and that some of these new labs will develop major projects that use the system,” Raftery said.

Having the microscope here will also be a boon for researchers in the state as well, Raftery said. Professors, researchers, and students from other Nevada universities and institutions will be able to use the equipment, including from Desert Research Institute, Roseman University of Health Sciences, or the University of Nevada, Reno. And private companies doing biomedical research will also be interested in using it, Raftery said.

Raftery explained that prior to winning the grant, if she wanted to perform this level of research, she’d have to take samples to another state, which could be tricky. For instance, the state of California wouldn’t let her take samples of her research across state lines.

There were many people involved in winning the grant, Raftery said. Three colleges supported it, plus a “Core Manager,” who will oversee the microscope, went to off-campus demonstrations, and four College of Sciences graduate students helped obtain preliminary data used in the grant.

Raftery gave credit to faculty throughout the sciences and engineering for their key roles in writing the grant.

“It takes a village to get a big microscope grant,” Raftery quipped.