Inside USD

Foundation Grants USD’s Wish for New Microscope

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

When Tara Piraneo left Connecticut nearly five years ago, she did so to enjoy San Diego for its location and to soak up a college experience on a smaller campus. But when the 2010 University of San Diego biology graduate reflects on her decision now, one of the most memorable moments stems from her seed beetle research.

Piraneo’s project, developed through working on an independent research project with USD Biology Professor Geoffrey Morse, PhD, examined two seed beetles that, while close relatives, had noticeable differences. Spines in the legs of a promiscuous seed beetle have more differentiation, some small and some big. Meanwhile, the spines in the legs of a monogamous beetle have little variation. The promiscuous beetle has an intense sexual selection that can evolve differently than those without it.

“It’s a result that had been predicted by theory, but no one had found before, partially because to have that contrast is pretty difficult,” said Dr. Morse, an expert in beetle research, of Piraneo’s discovery.

But as impressive as Piraneo’s work was, there was one improvement she had no control over. A 1993 electron microscope, which takes up-close photos for examination, was an outdated piece of equipment at USD and it often had efficiency issues.

Thankfully, however, that’s about to change. The Fletcher Jones Foundation recently approved a $250,000 grant proposal from Lisa Baird, PhD, biology professor and manager of the microscopy laboratory, and, as a result, both USD faculty and students will soon benefit from the purchase of a new scanning electron microscope.

“We’re very grateful to the Fletcher Jones Foundation for their continued support of the University of San Diego,” said Mary Boyd, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “This particular grant will allow us to advance the scholarly agenda of several faculty in the university as well as provide an opportunity for students to have hands-on experience with state-of-the-art instrumentation.”

Piraneo — who credited Dr. Baird’s Electron Microscopy class as a stepping stone to working with Dr. Morse —  said the current electron microscope aided her research. She was, however, excited about the new research instrument, and even joked that she was “jealous” of those who will get to access the new equipment.

“My entire research surrounded my experience in electron microscopy,” said Piraneo, who will start the entomology graduate program at Washington State University this summer. “USD has a great laboratory and resources. Electron microscopy opened it up and the professors I worked with helped me show the graduate schools that I could do the lab work.”

Expect more students and faculty to benefit in the USD lab. Dr. Baird (pictured, left) worked with Annette Ketner in Foundation Relations on the proposal to Fletcher Jones Foundation, a steady science contributor to USD with major grants in 1989, 1993 and 2001. For Dr. Baird, whose electron microscopy class has been an asset for many science majors, news of the successful grant was quite pleasing.

“We’re very happy that Fletcher Jones Foundation agreed that we needed a new electron microscope,” she said. “The one we’re getting allows our students to do all of the things the current scanning microscope does, only with increased resolution, increased ease of operation, much better photography and digital capability so we can get rid of using film altogether.”

It could be a catalyst for a complete Imaging Center in the Shiley Center for Science and Technology. Baird and Biology Professor Marjorie Patrick, PhD, recently submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to fund a new transmission electron microscope and a confocal microscope.

“It allows both the faculty and the students to do research at a level that we otherwise could not do,” Dr. Morse said of the necessity of grant support for equipment. “It might allow us to do research, but it would be scaled down, not as visible and doesn’t get them to the cutting edge of science, which is where we want our undergraduate students to be so they can compete and get the PhD positions like Tara did. Her research was really excellent, she gave a great talk on it at a national conference and got into grad school as a result.”

Dr. Baird said the new electron microscope would be used in a community outreach capacity. She is one of several USD faculty members involved in a three-year grant partnership with Chula Vista’s Mater Dei Catholic High School and its Science Academy students.

“About a year ago we did a workshop in scanning electron microscopy with the Mater Dei students and they had a terrific time. We had them prepare tissue and take pictures. It was such a brief period of time, but it definitely made an impact on them,” she said.

Dr. Baird also hopes to use the equipment to bridge a relationship with local community college students interested in science and faculty to expose them to it.

It’s exciting, too, for alumni like Piraneo. Knowing that USD science students and faculty will benefit from this new technology, reminds her of the outcome of her college decision. “I’ll definitely have to come back to campus and check it out.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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