The Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Western Connecticut State University has unveiled a new Microscopy Lab in the Science Building on the university’s Midtown campus. Serving as a place for students and staff in the department to conduct learning and research, the room was first used educationally this spring by Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Kristin Giamanco.
Before the 2020 campus closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty members in WCSU’s Biological and Environmental Sciences Department surveyed their equipment and facilities, and decided some changes needed to be made. This prompted them to apply for funding to better equip their microscopes. Included in the application were requests for upgraded light sources and cameras for the instruments to better capture images of study samples.
Once the department received the new materials, they began to look for a place to house them. Giamanco emphasized the importance of a space to keep the microscopes, stating that in the past, the department’s microscopes “did not have a dedicated space, so they were often being moved around the department to be used. Moving microscopes risks misaligning them, which heavily impacts results and the overall scientific legitimacy of research being done with the machine.”
Members of the department also were concerned about the new safety protocols and procedures implemented to prevent the spread of COVID. This concern factored heavily into their decision about where the lab would be located. Given the prominence of virtual learning at WCSU during the 2020-21 academic year, the staff recognized the importance of finding a space in which learning could take place in-person and still adhere to safety regulations.
“In a science course, you have to learn things tangibly … when you do microscopy and want a student to learn how to use the instrument, they need to have a microscope in front of them,” explained Giamanco. “The beauty of the space,” added Biology Department Chair & Professor of Biology Dr. Theodora Pinou, “is that it allows staff and students to visualize cells and learn how to stain for proteins and microstructures, which is a very important skill that employers are looking for.”
In January 2021, Giamanco spoke with Pinou, Dr. Michelle Brown, dean of The Macricostas School of Arts and Sciences, and Chief Facilities Officer Luigi Marcone about the prospect of setting up the Microscopy Lab. The group toured WCSU’s facilities before settling on Science Building Room 208, a space that previously served as the Biology Club room. Plans are currently being made to relocate the club room, which hosted meetings of WCSU’s Biology Club and offered students a place to study.
Giamanco held her first class in the lab during the first week of April. She believes that the hands-on experience gained in the lab will better prepare students for the professional world. Since the microscopes in the lab are widely used in the scientific community, learning how to use them properly and efficiently is “a very marketable skill.”
At present, the room contains three microscopes with fluorescent lightbulbs attached for viewing and identifying components of cells being studied. Two of the microscopes are equipped with cameras, which allow still images to be taken of the samples being studied to be used for lab reports and graphics.
“Normal instructional labs accommodate 15 or 16 students at a time,” Pinou said. “With COVID, we broke our labs in half; this way, four students could be in the microscope facility and four could be in the staging lab.”
The microscopes and technology in the new lab are sought after by researchers at WCSU who are interested in staining for proteins, genes, microstructures in cells, stem cell research and genomics. According to Pinou, there is also a tremendous interest among incoming master’s students in looking at marine ecology, specifically studying the accumulation of microplastics in fish, which directly affects what people eat.