Taking big pictures of the world’s tiniest things

For 40 years, there’s been one place on the University of South Carolina campus to get the big picture — the Electron Microscopy Center.

With instruments capable of zooming down to the subatomic level, the center focuses on client samples ranging from nanoparticles and metal alloys to plant materials, bacteria and viruses. Along with users from the university, scientists from several other schools and some in private industry send their samples to the center for high-resolution microscopy and microanalysis.

“Lots of universities have microscopy centers, but some centers don’t allow students to handle the scopes because they’re so delicate and expensive,” says center director Soumitra Ghoshroy. “But we have a different mission here. After extensive training, we let students use the instruments because it gives them a very rich experience.”

Part of the College of Arts and Sciences and located in the basement of the Coker Life Sciences Building, the Electron Microscopy Center has two scanning electron microscopes and one transmission electron microscope along with other sample preparation equipment. A high-resolution transmission electron microscope is housed in the center and maintained and operated by the College of Engineering and Computing.

A fee charged for use of the equipment helps pay for the maintenance and service costs. University of South Carolina scientists get a discount.

Since 2007 when Ghoshroy became the new director, the center has implemented an online instrument reservation system and password-protected access to client image files, which safeguards key research data.

Over the years, major advances in electron microscopy have allowed users to look at frozen specimens and liquid cells and to inject various gases or introduce high temperatures into sample chambers to gauge changes.

“The electron microscopes allow scientists involved in biological, nanomaterials and engineering research to get highly refined characterization of their samples,” Ghoshroy says.

The center is submitting an equipment grant proposal to the National Science Foundation this semester for a new transmission electron microscope that would be especially useful for scientists involved in polymer, biological and material research.

“The biggest challenge that we and other centers like this face is that the computer operating systems running the current-generation instruments can become obsolete in 10 years. The instruments, if well maintained, can work for 25 years, but operating systems don’t,” Ghoshroy said.


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