Professor of Biology James Ryan has designed and built a 3D printed fluorescence microscope that has the potential to impact undergraduate and high school classrooms across the country and clinical practices in developing countries around the world.
Ryan is working with Senior Lecturer Bruce Johnson and Associate Professor David Deitcher from the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University to both modify the microscope for neuroscience research and to develop a curriculum for use in high school and college classrooms. This summer, they will lead two workshops with neuroscience professors from around the country on how to build and use the model.
“I have always believed that undergraduates should have the opportunity to do cutting edge research,” Ryan says. Currently, commercial models for a fluorescence microscope range in cost from $15,000 to $50,000. Often, Ryan says, the cost is prohibitive enough that even elite undergraduate programs only have one, limiting potential research projects for students. Ryan’s model costs less than $1,000. He also intends to provide all relevant information in an open-source platform.
The most expensive parts of Ryan’s microscope are the specially coated glass filters and the camera. Because neuroscience research involves the documentation of rapidly occurring events, Ryan incorporated a global shutter camera with the device, which has a high frame rate. For clinical purposes, the camera can be replaced with a less expensive option– furthering the accessibility of the microscope.
Currently, Ryan, Johnson and Deitcher are using the microscope to image living neurons as they communicate with one another – a technique that is currently only taught at the graduate level.
The video below is a recording of the neural tissue of a fruit fly using Fluorescence Ca2+-imaging techniques. The neurons fluoresce brightly when they send signals.
Ryan is working to secure funding to introduce six of his fluorescence microscopes to his fall of 2020 “Neurobiology” class, which will allow his students to observe and practice the technique. Ryan says learning this skill will enable students to be “hugely competitive” if they apply to neuroscience graduate programs.
Introducing the microscope to his “Neurobiology” course and developing a modular curriculum for high school STEM courses will allow Ryan to create a proof of concept, demonstrating that students can build and use the model to collect data.
For Ryan, developing a STEM curriculum, instead of singularly focusing on biology, is an important early introduction to a liberal arts mindset. For example, Ryan says that with a fluorescence microscope in their classroom, students may apply the study of optics, electronics, and computer coding as well as solving rigorous biological problems. He hopes to obtain funding that will enable the microscope kits to be produced for undergraduate programs and high schools across the country.
In addition, Ryan anticipates potential clinical use for the microscope. Having worked for several years in Madagascar, and as a member of research teams in Ghana and Uganda, Ryan has observed how access to a cost-efficient fluorescence microscope could drastically improve health outcomes. As compared to conventional microscopes, fluorescence microscopes could allow doctors to readily identify cancerous tissues or blood parasites such as malaria.