Partnerships in science: Botany lights way for new microscope

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There's nothing fancy about the Newcomb Imaging Center (NIC), in the basement of Birge Hall. But the small, windowless rooms (some painted black, to enhance eerie views of fluorescent cells) are home to some very fancy equipment.

This summer, a new state-of-the-art Zeiss Elyra system, including a 780-confocal laser scanning microscope, joins the scanning electron microscope and the high-pressure freezer as part of the NIC's elite collection of tools for studying the dynamic processes of cells. The new microscope is extra-sensitive, extra-fast, and will shape the questions scientists ask about how cells multiply, respond to stimuli, grow, adapt, and die.

Professor of Botany Marisa Otegui led a unique, collaborative fundraising campaign for the new microscope, sparked by a seed gift from an anonymous donor (rather than a big federal grant). Otegui says the NIC — seen as welcoming, user-friendly, and stocked with essential tools — was a selling point.

"Botany's NIC is great because it serves a whole community of researchers and students, campus-wide," she says.

The NIC is named for Dr. Eldon Newcomb, Professor Emeritus of Botany, who pioneered the use of electron microscopy to study plant cells. Sarah Swanson, NIC director, beams as she lists the roster of NIC users.

"Botany, of course. Also medical sciences, biochemistry, genetics, zoology, plant pathology, and agronomy. Oh, geography, too! Students came to look at 3,500-year-old pollen from a core sample they'd collected from a lake in Indiana."

The NIC is a perfect example of how science at UW-Madison doesn't happen in isolated settings, but through partnerships across disciplines. One reason is because resources aren't cheap. High-powered microscopes such as the new Zeiss Elyra system cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million and in 10 years — possibly sooner — they become obsolete. Yet, researchers need state-of-the-art equipment to do their work and remain cutting-edge.

By working together, they can do that.

Botany's anonymous donor, who enjoys volunteering in the Botanical Garden next to Birge Hall and visiting with faculty members who have become friends over the years, was "very excited" to hear that the new microscope had been purchased.

"She was happy to hear that her gift took us so far," says Otegui.