Light Microscopy Across the Disciplines

Hi WN@TL Fans,

The seal of UW-Madison features an eye with rays of light. It’s not clear if the light is emanating from the eye or converging upon it.  Perhaps it is both. The dichotomy goes way back before 1849.

Plato postulated in the 4th Century BC that vision worked by rays streaming out from the eye. His student Aristotle thought the eye received rays. Leonardo Da Vinci in the 1480’s followed Plato, but apparently changed his point of view in the 1490’s and favored Aristotle.

By 1609, while Galileo was viewing the horizons and the heavens with his telescope, Kepler was gaining insights into the orbits of planets, the optics of lenses and the vision of the eye.

Equally astonishing new worlds were awaiting another type of scope—this time, in the 1670’s, it was Leevenhoek’s microscope. His was not like the tubular, two-lensed telescopes or microscopes we are familiar with; his had a single lens of ground glass that was both lens and eyepiece.  And with it he discovered not new heavenly bodies orbiting around planets, but moving little animals—animalcules.

Optics have helped humanity discover new worlds, both celestial and microscopic. Lenses change not only what we view, but how we view the world and our place in it.

How we see the microbial world depends on the type of specimen that comports to the microscope. Unlike a telescope, a microscope depends mostly on light tailored and chosen by the microscopist.  You get different insights from different wavelengths. And as with theatrical stage lighting, you get different effects depending whether you choose a spotlight, a floodlight, or a curtain of light.

But the most amazing change in my lifetime has been the ways microscopes accommodate and record the motion of living microbes and their inner workings.

This week (May 15) Elle Kielar-Grevstad of Biochemistry will show us how new technologies in optics, light sources and recording devices combine to make microscopes that let us see deeper and clearer into materials and into the previously-secret lives of cells. Through the ingenious use of dyes and specific color-coded tags inside and outside the cell we can now catch the action of metabolism, development and growth.

Here’s how Dr. Kielar-Grevstad describes her talk:  “This talk will examine why and how light microscopy is used to explore a wide range of research questions all across campus.  We will go into the details of how microscopy has evolved from a purely qualitative discipline to the dynamic, cutting edge, and quantitative field it is today.

About the Speaker:

Elle Kielar-Grevstad is the Director of the Biochemistry Core Facilities.  As such she manages three community lab spaces where researchers (on and off campus) can gain access to the expertise and training needed to perform a host of biochemical, biophysical, and structural biology techniques.  Elle received her PhD in Biochemistry in 2011 under the guidance of Thomas Martin.  In that work she developed novel and sophisticate ways to image the dynamic interactions that underlie the regulated release of hormones in live cells.

In 2014, she and Tom Martin founded the Biochemistry Optical Core with the explicit mission to provide state-of-the-art instrumentation and expert advice on the use of light microscopy across scientific disciplines.  Since that time, the BOC has grown to serve over 200 researchers who come from 7 schools and/or colleges on campus.  This service has resulted in over 50 peer-reviewed publications in the last 5 years alone.  Elle is also an accomplished photomicroscopist wherein she strives to capture the beauty and complexity of the small worlds our eyes are not able to see.


Next week (May 22) Mark Burkhard will be here to talk about “Transforming Cancer Treatment with Precision Medicine.” He’ll describe the Wisconsin Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board at it seeks to implement the “Wisconsin Idea” by making precision cancer care available to cancer patients state-wide.  This collaborative effort provides a free service to patients and oncologists to allow them to access experts in precision medicine and share data at no cost to physicians and patients.  Moreover, this is linked to a program of clinical trials to provide access to the latest medicines on two tiers—commonly needed medicines are made accessible at multiple sites in the state, and rarely needed medicines are made available at one site.

Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.

Thanks again!

Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Division of Extension


UW-Madison:  5.8 million owners, one pretty good public land-grant teaching, research and extension university.

Visit UW-Madison’s science outreach portal at for information on the people, places & programs on campus that welcome you to come experience science as exploring the unknown, all year round.

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