Seeing up close from afar

Posted: November 30, 2021

Learning advanced electron microscopy techniques has traditionally been a one-on-one activity for a student sitting in front of an instrument with an expert microscopist. However, remote microscopy at The Ohio State University’s Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis (CEMAS) provides a powerful platform for education and collaboration at geographically distant locations. 

This fall, Case Western Reserve University’s Swagelok Center for Surface Analysis of Materials (SCSAM) became the latest facility to gain remote access to CEMAS. This connection allows students and researchers at Case Western Reserve to leverage CEMAS instrumentation from its campus in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Case Western Reserve University students remotely accessing Ohio State microscopes
Students at Case Western Reserve University take part in the inaugural TEM remote class offered by Ohio State. 

“We are excited to enhance collaborative opportunities with Case Western Reserve and the SCSAM through CEMAS’s remote access capabilities,” David McComb, the director of CEMAS and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Ohio State. “Remote microscopy is having a significant impact on the way microscopy and other characterization techniques are taught and the way both industry and academia collaborate. 

“We have well over $40 million worth of tools at CEMAS. That is a capability that needs to be accessible way beyond Ohio State,” McComb said.

With remote access to CEMAS, students and educators will be able to control and interact with instruments to teach electron microscopy theory and train users in all aspects of its use and operation. 

Though it is the sixth remote station connected to CEMAS, this marks the first time PhD students have enrolled remotely in an Ohio State course on practical transmission electron microscopy (TEM)

“This could not be possible without collaboration from both microscopy centers and so many components of each university’s operations,” Jennifer Carter, an associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Case Western Reserve University and the faculty director of SCSAM. “It is not as simple as ‘if you build it, they will come,’ we also had to communicate with, and establish methods of accommodating, almost all aspects of teaching and research at the university to make this possible.”

Case Western Reserve previously maintained TEMs on campus; however, the college sold their outdated instruments to make room for a new scanning electron microscope (SEM). In connecting remotely to CEMAS, Carter can provide researchers at Case Western Reserve access to the capabilities of a TEM, while remaining a responsible financial steward.

A TEM uses transmitted electrons, which are passing through the sample, to create an image. The instrument offers information on the inner structure of the sample, such as crystal structure, morphology, and stress state information.

CEMAS remote microscopy control room
CEMAS Assistant Director of Research Operations Hendrik Colijn instructs students at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland from his instrument in Columbus. 

“This technique is very specialized, and it’s not one of those things you’ll use for everything, but sometimes it’s the only tool that works,” Carter said.

CEMAS is the ideal environment for electron microscopy – designed by microscopists for microscopists. The innovative building design and quality infrastructure ensure that every instrument in the facility meets or exceeds manufacturer performance specifications. An in-house team of technical staff further supports the physical infrastructure. 

Remote capabilities connect directly to the 100 Gb/s Ohio OARnet network, providing a unique opportunity for remote teaching and research to partners across the state. 

Since opening in 2013, CEMAS has extended its use to potential users, both on campus and off. The goal is to make the advanced instrumentation and skilled technical support of CEMAS available to users in all disciplines at Ohio State and, equally important, to industrial, academic, and government entities across the nation. 

“I am excited to work with Professor Carter and the team at Case Western Reserve to amplify the impact of advanced electron microscopy in materials science and in other disciplines,” McComb said. “Our facilities share a mission to promote and support interdisciplinary research by providing access to state-of-the-art analytical instruments and technical expertise. This partnership is a step toward fulfilling that mission efficiently and economically while extending CEMAS’s educational resources across Ohio.”

Carter received her PhD in materials science and engineering from Ohio State in 2012. Although she graduated six months before CEMAS officially opened, she was aware of the exciting advancements coming to Ohio State.

Now, three PhD students at Case Western Reserve are participating in the inaugural TEM remote class offered by Ohio State. 

“It’s exciting to be part of a new collaboration,” Laura Wilson, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering at Case Western Reserve, said. “This is what science should be about, sharing knowledge and tools.”

Yue Xu, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering, and Blake Martin, a doctoral student in macromolecular science and engineering, also take advantage of the remote access capabilities. 

“This partnership really filled in some gaps of characterization techniques that were previously absent from the campus’s instrumentation,” Martin said. 

Martin has been interested in electron microscopy since his undergraduate studies. He owns four copies of Transmission Electron Microscopy: A Textbook for Material Science by David B. Williams and C. Barry Carter. Williams served as dean of engineering at Ohio State from 2011-21 and continues to share his electron microscopy expertise at CEMAS. 

For Xu, remote access will allow him to image and identify the elemental composition of nanomaterials he’s researching. 

“We have been looking for a TEM to image our nanoparticles for a long time,” Xu said. “I have been interested in TEM for a long time, but I never got a chance to use it. This program offers me the opportunity to understand the working mechanism of TEM from very basic science to actually operating the TEM to image samples. It is my pleasure to be in the first group of students to take part in the partnership.”

Having proven the value of functional remote microscopy, CEMAS continues to seek ways to expand its reach, allowing institutions, large and small, access to a world-class microscopy facility to advance their educational and research programs.

by Ashley Lippincott

Categories: ResearchStudents