University Imaging Centers peers into the future

Nikon scope

Imagine looking at a live animal the same way you use Google Maps. Start with a bird’s-eye view and zoom in, past the hair, through the skin, down to an organ. Zoom again; now you see the vessels feeding the organ. Another zoom and you see the individual cells. Keep going, and you’re inside the cell, watching individual organelles at work, in real time.

That’s the vision for the University Imaging Centers, where, as program director Mark Sanders says, “the university sees the future.” Though the Google Maps of microscopes is not a reality yet, the Imaging Centers is approaching its vision.

A national center of excellence

The University of Minnesota’s Imaging Centers was recently acknowledged as a Nikon Center of Excellence–one of a select group of centers in the country. The designation recognizes the Imaging Centers for exemplary performance and as an integral component of fundamental research on imaging technology. Another plus: the Imaging Centers will evaluate and test cutting-edge imaging technology and expand its role as an international learning resource center.

Remarkably, as a business unit, the University Imaging Centers is just over three years old, consolidated from several imaging labs across the U. Since consolidation, the Imaging Centers has received three significant funding awards totaling more than $11 million, allowing it to improve facilities, add needed expertise and purchase new equipment.

The Imaging Centers’ state-of-the-art equipment allows it to work on an extraordinary variety of  projects and collaborate with researchers and institutes across the U. Because many of the digital files generated are so large (up to 20GB), the Imaging Centers partners with the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute for data storage.

Director Sanders notes, “We can use the same tools to solve all kinds of research problems. We work with animal and plant tissues, study crop pathogens, cancer mechanisms and treatments, everything from very basic research to business applications.”

For example, the Imaging Centers has helped anthropologists study the past by evaluating the material left on stone-age tools. “We could observe at the microscopic level the changes that took place in tools and look for signs of biological material on the tool,” Sanders explains. This information helps anthropologists determine the intended use of the tool, the materials being used by ancient humans and the foods being consumed.

Specialized service and training

Looking to the future, companies come to the Imaging Centers for a variety of purposes. Sometimes business research involves trade secrets or competitive concerns, so the Centers’ staff can train the business’s staff to use the imaging equipment, or the Centers can consult and collaborate with the business.

The Imaging Centers also hosts international guests who are training on and using the equipment. At a recent symposium, only two of twenty-four participants were from the university. Sanders notes, “The national and international outreach brings attention to the university as a center of excellence.”

Sanders is enthusiastic about the Imaging Centers and what it means to research. “Biology is the study of life. Before, we could only view tissue at the cellular level if it was no longer living. In the past 10 years, new technology has enabled us to view living tissues at increasingly refined levels—down to a hundred nanometers.”

By the numbers

The University of Minnesota Imaging Centers:

  • Operates two facilities but will soon open a third for a total of 13,000 square feet
  • Has over 450 active users, about 10 percent of whom are from outside the university
  • Has about $7 million in hardware and 25 high-end instruments
  • Has 8 staff, 4 of whom have PhDs
  • Annually provides several symposia and many training sessions, training some 200 individuals
  • Is guided by a 13-member advisory panel representing chemistry, biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, plant pathology, cell biology and development, neuroscience, cardio-cancer and more

Visit the University Imaging Centers to learn more.

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.; photography by Andria Waclawski

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