Tuesday, August 9, 2011

All Good Things...

We are closing in on our final days of RET. All experiments are finished and it is now time to communicate our data, which is a crucial component of science. I've seen great experimenters hindered by their inability to get across their amazing results. Over the next few days we will be giving a presentation and a poster, both will expose us to questions from BU professors and graduate students (as well as RET peers). While it can sometimes be intimidating, the questions help push you to new learning.

Reflecting back on the last 6 weeks, I realize how far we have come in such a short period of time. Our biggest accomplishment was being able to get a good, repeatable thiol SAM on our chips. We spent the first week getting our feet wet, the next 2 stumbling around with a method that was incomplete, and the tail end getting positive results. Our biggest hurdle in this time was the cleaning/purging step in our chip making process. It took multiple runs and analyses to determine that we needed a change in method. With help from our advisors (no work is done in a vacuum, use your colleagues for advice!), we were able to get the process moving.

In the end, we were able to make SAM's with reproducible results over a range of different thiol solution concentrations. This is valuable because the amount of material used can be dramatically reduced and costs can be saved. We also found that the chips only need to incubate (sit in the thiol solution) for 6 hours, down from the overnight process it used to be. This will save time and allow for faster throughput (a single chip, from beginning to antibody layer, can now be done in a single day). I'd like to think our work pushed the project forward in some small way.

RET has been a great program, and one I'd recommend for any science/engineering teachers. It would be especially useful for educators who haven't spent much time in the research environment. We tend to view the fundamental principles we teach as well-organized sets of data, whereas research is often a "2 steps for 1 step back" process. It can be frustrating when things don't work like they are "supposed to" but it is rewarding to work through the problems and get results. The insight this provides is invaluable. Plus, it forces the teacher out of her/his comfort zone, making us remember what it is like to be a student. It is easy to forget that sometimes...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


"This is mission control, you are clear for landing."

The quote above is an approximation of the first thing that came out of my mouth when I saw the scanning electron microscope (SEM). I was sure I had seen this in old movies of Apollo space explorations, but it turns out that the machine is a lot more contemporary than I imagined (less than 20 years old). And even for having that much age, I was amazed at the power.

An SEM is used to take high resolution pictures of objects. They can typically study features that are 10's of nanometers (about 1/1000 the thickness of a human hair) with striking clarity. To the left is an SEM image of an "trojan particle" from a paper I co-authored about 10 years ago. In photo "b", each of the smaller particles are less than 50 nm, yet they you can see them with ease. (The SEM used to take this picture had a different interface than the one we used this week, which is why I was so surprised by the control panel).

Using the SEM, we looked at the finer features of a nickel, examined the topography of different types of paper, and got up-close and personal with a fly. Part of the reason I teach science is to help students discover how cool it can be. We can actually see what a fly's eye looks like! Show me a student who doesn't find that interesting...