Seeing More Than Ever Before

Baylor’s new transmission electron microscope opens the doors to important research

It’s not unusual for newly hired faculty researchers to be given laboratory space in the Baylor Sciences Building that has been modified to meet the specific needs of their projects. But one of the largest lab renovations in the BSB recently was made not to house a faculty member or research team, but a large multimillion-dollar microscope that can help scientists conduct cutting edge research, solve mysteries in emerging scientific fields of study and raise the University’s national research profile.

Dr. Bernd Zechmann works with faculty and students to operate Baylor's new transmission electron microscope.
Dr. Bernd Zechmann works with faculty and students to operate Baylor's new transmission electron microscope.

The BSB is now home to Baylor’s new transmission electron microscope (TEM), which represents a huge leap in design and abilities over the old light-based microscopes once used at every level.

A nanometer is the length of a billionth of a meter, and light microscopes can produce images of samples at a maximum resolution of about 200 nanometers. By contrast, a transmission electron microscope works by shooting a beam of electrons through a specimen in a vacuum to form an image. This creates images as small as 0.05 nanometers — so small that individual atoms can be seen. What’s more, the electrons penetrate the sample so that TEMs create three-dimensional images instead of the flat, two-dimensional images displayed by microscopes using light.

Baylor’s TEM — a Spectra 300, indicating the 300,000 volts required for electron acceleration — is one of only two of its kind in the world, with the other one located at UCLA. Baylor’s instrument will support a variety of research projects dealing with cancer, virology, material science, environmental science, nanotechnology and more.

“We’ll be able to identify what an unknown nanoparticle is, and on the atomic level, we’ll see how the atoms are arranged,” said Dr. Bernd Zechmann, director of Baylor’s Center for Microscopy and Imaging (CMI), which is administered by the College of Arts & Sciences and contains much of the scientific technology used in the BSB. “We can also reconstruct proteins. If you have a disease and you know this protein is the reason for it, you can look at it healthy and unhealthy, and then you know how the malfunction of the protein contributes to the disease.”

This new technology represents a significant investment for Baylor. The TEM has a list price of $6.5 million, but Baylor was able to buy it during the pandemic at a significant discount from the manufacturer. A $1.5 million upgrade has already been performed, and another $500,000 in support equipment will make full use of the TEM’s capabilities. In addition, an annual service contract will ensure that the microscope will always be ready for action.

Zechmann said these investments have allowed Baylor to do more than simply obtain the technology — they also have provided for the enhancement of the University’s reputation.

“These expensive, state-of-the-art TEMs become flagships for a university, because if you can afford them, that means faculty can perform groundbreaking research,” he said.

“I'm confident that Dr. Zechmann and the Center for Microscopty and Imaging will continue to play a major role in pushing our research forward, while providing a significant experience for our students.” –Dr. Brian Raines, associate dean for Research

Dr. Brian Raines, associate dean for research in the College of Arts & Sciences, said acquiring the TEM is an exciting development, both in Arts & Sciences and across Baylor.

“It immediately puts us in the top level of microscopy in the country,” he said. “I’m confident that Dr. Zechmann and the Center for Microscopy and Imaging will continue to play a major role in pushing our research forward, while providing a significant experience for our students.”

Preparing the Way

The TEM was ordered in 2020, and to fit it inside the BSB Baylor had to renovate space to create a room on the ground floor of the building tall enough to hold the instrument, which is three meters (almost 10 feet) tall, and large enough to provide space for the TEM’s supporting computers. The 256-square-foot space also had to be stable, meaning not having any floor vibrations from air conditioning units, plumbing, elevators or other equipment, and having no interference from magnetic field vibrations created by electrical lines in the walls.

In July 2022, a large semi-truck trailer pulled up to the BSB, filled with the 23 large crates containing the pieces that would be fit together to create the TEM. A technician from the manufacturer spent six months carefully assembling the microscope (guided by a 500-page manual) while another specialist prepared the unit’s power source and camera.

After the TEM was tested and tuned for a month, Zechmann was trained to operate it and to train others. Going forward, a specialist in microscopy will be hired at Baylor solely to manage the TEM.

“You have to have a dedicated person supervising its usage, because if a student inserted the sample incorrectly, you’d risk hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage,” Zechmann said.

Zechmann said while other institutions might have TEMs similar to Baylor’s, those are 10 to 15 years old and outdated in terms of their capabilities.

“Our configuration is so unique, there are just two in the world, and that’s what makes this one so special,” he said.

R1/Tier 1 Impact

While the timeline involved in getting the new TEM did not allow it to play a direct role in Baylor achieving Research 1 status among top universities in December 2021, news that the large electron microscope was soon coming to campus nevertheless attracted attention from the scientific community.

“Two years ago, we started hiring some faculty members who, in part, came to Baylor because they are interested in using this new microscope,” Zechmann said. “The TEM will contribute to R1 because you need this instrument to perform R1-level research and to hire the faculty you need to stay at R1.”

The decision made by Baylor to commit to spending for the TEM in advance of any new faculty who might use the microscope in their research is what Zechmann called a classic “chicken and egg” situation.

“This is a great aspect of Baylor — that we do the egg-first approach,” he said. “That’s why I love to be here.”

The TEM also is the latest example of what Zechmann said has been a steady investment by Baylor in the tools needed for top-level research.

“Since I came here in 2014, all the instruments in the CMI are brand-new, because we knew in order to reach Tier 1 and stay at Tier 1, we must have this equipment and technology,” he said.