PSU receives grant for high-tech microscope

Portland State’s Rempfer Lab team working on a more advancedmicroscope got a big boost this spring, when the nanoscienceresearchers won a $741,000 grant from the National ScienceFoundation.

The team’s plan is to develop a photoelectron microscope thatwill have greater resolution than any microscope yet. Though hesays it’s an ambitious goal, Koenenkamp thinks the new instrumentwill be able to give researchers a better view of viruses, andpossibly macro-molecular assemblies and DNA structure.

The support is more than just financial. The team’s physicist,professor Rolf Koenenkamp, said that getting the grant is a vote ofconfidence for the team’s proposal.

“If you want major grant support, there’s no way to go aroundNSF,” Koenenkamp said. “These are very competitive grants.”

The difference between the more familiar electron microscope andthe photoelectron microscope is that in the electron microscope,electrons come from an external source and act upon the subject,which can quickly destroy biological subjects such as diseasedtissue. The photoelectron microscope creates an image from theelectrons coming from the subject.

The team is comprised of Koenenkamp, Gertrude Rempfer, a retiredphysics professor who specializes in electron optics, and KenStedman, an assistant professor of biology who focuses on virusstructure.

Students have been working in the lab for a while, but theyweren’t paid for their work. Instead, they had to teach lab coursesto earn money. Now the students will be able to focus onresearch.

Constructing the instrument is primarily a problem of physicsand engineering, Koenenkamp said, “but if you want to get fundingfrom [the bioinstrumentation part of NSF], you have to prove it’suseful to biology.”

“This was a major project we wanted to do,” Koenenkampexplained. “If we hadn’t gotten the grant, we would have pursuedthis project more slowly. We would have applied for other grants…It takes longer (without the money) but you can do it also in slowmotion.”

The preliminary design for the microscope is finished and theyexpect the manufactured parts back by the end of the month. Thoughsummer is Koenenkamp’s most flexible time for research, work willcontinue apace through the regular school year.

“It’s a team effort,” he said. “If one person has an exam or hasto teach the others chip in.”

NSF will be watching to see how the money is used, with anespecially watchful eye on PSU’s effort to involve students. Tothat end, the team will try to make the grant money benefit as manystudents as possible. High school students from Saturday Academywill get a chance to be involved, Koenenkamp said, and themicroscopy center will indirectly benefit from a higher interest inmicroscope development, too.

“NSF is very interested in the educational part of thisresearch,” Koenenkamp said. “PSU is just moving into becoming amajor research university. All of our microscopy work feeds intothat.”