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New Lab Bolsters Science Research


Students research the causes of cancer in the new Fletcher Jones Microscopy Center with Juliet Spencer, associate professor of biology.

A new half-million-dollar science laboratory is shaking up the way research is done at USF. The lab advances the university’s research in specialties like cancer, climate change, and nanotechnology by 20 years.

At the heart of the lab are three advanced instruments: a scanning confocal microscope, a scanning electron microscope, and a flow cytometer.

  • The confocal microscope captures cell images in 3D
  • The electron microscope magnifies microscopic objects and captures images in high-resolution, and
  • The flow cytometer analyzes cells in a fluid, blood being one example 

“Now, students have the chance to conduct research on instruments like those they’d find in labs at Genentech, UCSF Medical Center, and the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Associate Professor Juliet Spencer, who chairs the Biology Department and won a grant to build the Fletcher Jones Microscopy lab. 

Fighting cancer

Spencer and her students, including Carolyn Tu MS ’14, are hunting human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) inside cancer cells with the confocal microscope. They believe HCMV triggers tumor growth. The confocal allows Tu to zero in on a cell and capture a 3D image on her computer monitor: spin it, turn it, and, amazingly, move inside it. 

“It’s incredible to be able to visualize the cell in this way. It’s like magic!” said Tu, whose work couldn’t have been done at USF a year ago.

Nanotech & the environment

Physics students use the electron microscope to study the tiny electronic components, or nanotechnology, that go into computer chips, solar cells, and scanning electron microscopes themselves—with the idea of improving on the current design.

“We’re studying scanning electron microscope guns, the tiny needles that direct the laser and affect a microscope’s image quality,” said Seth Foreman, assistant professor of physics, referring to his student researchers. “We want to build the next generation of needles capable of powering the next generation of scanning electron microscopes—ultrafast electron microscopes,” Foreman said. “It’s a very new field.” 

Biology and environmental science students use the same electron microscope to study the Earth’s oceans in Professor Deneb Karentz’s class. “We’re using it to identify phytoplankton species and study the effects of warming water and increased sunlight on them and other ocean life,” Karentz said.

Improving health care

The flow cytometer sucks up cells in a fluid and analyzes what molecules are present. “We’re using it to look at the various types of blood cells and to identify leukemia, anemia, and leukopenia,” said Mary Jane Niles, a biotech professor. The cytometer has dramatically reduced the time required to analyze these samples, which used to be done under a standard microscope. What used to take 30 minutes now takes a few seconds, Niles said. 

Students using the microscopes and cytometer for the first time find they’re easy to learn and easy to operate, Niles said. Plus, they’re very durable. “I’m really impressed with the research possibilities the new lab and equipment opens up to USF students,” Niles said.  

by Ed Carpenter | Office of Communications and Marketing »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews