This Major Research Instrumentation grant supports the acquisition of a variable-pressure scanning electron microscope (SEM), an effective, modern research tool that provides high quality imaging of surface features of specimens that are too small to be observed with the unaided eye or a traditional light microscope. This SEM also contains a microanalysis system which when used in conjunction with the SEM can determine qualitatively the elemental composition of a specimen. The instrumentation will enhance faculty research in the fields of biology, geology and atmospheric sciences. Faculty and undergraduate research students will investigate the elemental composition and surface morphology of cuticular structures of arthropods (i.e. reproductive anatomy of Neotropical spiders and harvestmen), gastropod radulae, vertebrate teeth, clays, sandstones, and particulates from aerosols (soot vs. salt crystals).

Virginia Wesleyan College (VWC) is a small, liberal arts college with a diverse student body. The acquisition of the state-of-the-art SEM will increase the quality of undergraduate research training opportunities at the college for minorities, women and physically-challenged students. The SEM will substantially improve the visibility of the natural science programs at VWC, supporting collaborations between the college's faculty, students, and other scientists in southeastern Virginia. The SEM will be used in an upper level research methods course to be offered during the college's three week Winter Session. One of the goals of this course will be to attract and introduce students to SEM early in their educational career. Subsequently, as juniors and seniors, these students can use the instrumentation in their undergraduate research projects. In an effort to bolster recruitment of students into STEM disciplines, the SEM will also be used during the summer months in programs designed specifically to provide exposure for local high school students to the scientific research enterprise.

Project Report

This Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) grant award supported the acquisition of a Hitachi S-3400N variable-pressure (VP) scanning electron microscope (SEM) with an Oxford energy dispersive spectrometer (EDS) system at Virginia Wesleyan College (VWC). This instrumentation and its supporting equipment (sputter coater and critical point dryer) were acquired and installed in January 2012. Intellectual Merit Beginning with the faculty training sessions later in January 2012, the SEM was used intensively (beam time over 180 hours) in both Spring and Fall semesters. The microscope directly impacted the research activities of five faculty members representing the departments of Biology and Earth and Environmental Sciences. In multiple instances, the SEM provided the basis for fostering collaborative projects among these scientists. Research topics included: 1) the reproductive anatomy in Neotropical harvestmen; 2) the microanatomy of the cuticle of harvestmen; 3) leg injuries and wound healing in arachnids; 4) the microanatomy of exotic mammal hair from species at the local zoo; 5) cytoskeletal mutants of Neurospora crassa; and 6) the structure and composition of ceramic glazes, aerosols and samples of sands. The instrument was effectively used for the research training of 16 undergraduate students. These students gave poster presentations of their results at the VWC Science Undergraduate Research Symposium, an event held biannually on campus during the final exam week of the semester. Students were also encouraged to submit their favorite micrographs for a juried on-campus competition known as "Let’s Get Small". We anticipate that at least six students will present the results of their research projects at off-campus scientific conferences in Fall 2012 or Spring 2013. In addition, we expect that at least six manuscripts will be submitted for consideration of publication in peer reviewed national and international scientific journals in Spring or Summer 2013. Broader Impacts Since its arrival on campus, the SEM has supported the development and offering of a new, advanced research methods course, Biology 400: Scanning Electron Microscopy (Spring 2012, Fall 2012). This class has featured the research training of eight undergraduate research students each semester. The microscope has also been used for class and lab demonstrations in Chemistry 480: Instrumental Methods (3 students), Biology 371: Histology (5 students), ART 320: Photography (2 students), and FYE 101: First Year Experience (6 students). The microscope has also been used to generate original teaching materials for Biology 377: Entomology & Arachnology (19 students) and Biology 371: Histology. VWC is a small liberal arts college with a diverse student body. Approximately 70% of the undergraduate students who have received research training with the instrument have been women. In an effort to bolster the recruiting of students into STEM disciplines, the SEM is being used for demonstrations to groups of local high school students who are interested in pursuing STEM careers and also as a way to introduce them to the scientific research enterprise. We anticipate that the SEM will be an essential research tool at VWC for the next decade and beyond. As part of on-going assessments of departmental programs, we shall continue to measure the overall impact of the instrument upon student research training by monitoring the success rates of students applying for admission into postgraduate programs and seeking employment in STEM fields. Of the four students who conducted SEM-based research projects and were graduated in May 2012, one has since entered graduate school and two others are actively applying during the Fall semester.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI)
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Robert Fleischmann
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Virginia Wesleyan College
United States
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