Studying the Structures of Proteins in a Space-like Environment; Predicting Groundwater Contamination; WIsconsin’s Roles in Imaging Earth

For 15 June 2022    

 Hi WN@TL Fans,

 In the summer of 1977 as the opening of the new Boebel Hall at UW-Platteville approached for the fall semester, bacteriology Professor Marilyn Tufte and my fellow student worker Ric Braem had the jeweler’s joy of installing the new electron microscope on the second floor.

 That autumn I first learned about spiral beams of electrons, about research-grade vacuum pumps, and about cold fingers chilled by liquid nitrogen.  In the darkened EM room came the first lemon-green glow of the imaging disc, my first luminous glimpse of bacteria through the porthole viewer.  More bedazzling angles followed:  making glass knives to slice embedded samples, osmium stains to enhance contrast, darkroom deftness to further magnify and fix the black-and-white photographs of the samples. 

 I long have associated EM with images of eucaryotic cells and their organelles, and of bacterial cells and their membranes & invaginations, their pili & flagella. 

 But now the EM is opening to us a whole ‘nuther order of miniatude:  imaging technology, big data and synergies with other tools including mass spectrometry are enabling humans to decipher the structure of biological molecules such as proteins.

 As an undergrad I didn’t work with a mass spectrometer, but I’m guessing that if I had, I’d be as amazed at the scintillating advances in mass spectrometry as I am by those in electron microscopy.  I’m anticipating that this Wednesday, Kenny Lee will help us see the shape of the astonishing. 



On June 15 Kenny Lee of the Joshua Coon Lab in Biochemical Sciences and the Morgridge Institute speaks on “Studying Protein Structures in a Space-like Environment:  Integration of Mass Spectrometry and Electron Microscopy for Structural Biology.”  

Description:  Structural biology focuses on correlating biomolecular structure to function. It is known that proteins take specific shapes and self-assemble into larger complexes with other molecules to perform vital roles. With the development of powerful tools such as NMR spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography, and electron microscopy, scientists have uncovered many structures and shown how their three-dimensional shapes influence their cellular functions. Mass spectrometry has more recently gained traction in the field of structural biology as a complementary approach. Whereas careful measurements with crystallography and microscopy generate detailed three-dimensional images, mass spectrometry provides important molecular information such as the number of individual components in a large complex and their individual masses.

One strength of mass spectrometry is its ability to weigh and sort different components in a mixture; however, this requires the molecules in the sample to be removed from their stable liquid environment and suspended in electric fields under high vacuum as highly charged particles. We use a technique called electrospray ionization to gently apply charge to the molecules and transfer them into the vacuum environment of the mass spectrometer, but whether these molecules retained their native liquid-phase structure remained a question. An approach termed “soft-landing” can address this question by transmitting the charged molecules through the mass spectrometer and collecting them on a surface. The landed particles can then be imaged with electron microscopy.

Our contributions to the soft-landing experiment have increased the quality and quantity of landed particles such that we published the first 3D reconstruction of a protein complex that had traveled through a mass spectrometer. This result demonstrated that stable biomolecular structures remain intact as highly charged particles under high vacuum. We aim to further develop soft-landing via mass spectrometry followed by analysis with electron microscopy as a hybrid structural biology tool to characterize biomolecular structures that are typically difficult to study because of low amounts or sample complexity.

Bio:  Kenny Lee earned his B.S. in Chemistry at Brigham Young University and his PhD in Chemistry at Purdue University. At Purdue, he learned the fundamentals of mass spectrometry instrumentation while developing electronics and hardware to perform measurements on large biomolecular structures for a home-built mass spectrometer. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Coon lab at UW-Madison where he is continuing to develop mass spectrometry instrumentation for multiple biological applications and working in a team that is interfacing mass spectrometry with electron microscopy as a novel approach to studying biomolecular structure. He lives with his wife Tashina and their 18-month-old daughter Violet in east Madison.

Explore More:

Game-changer: New tech could transform biotechnology – Morgridge Institute for Research

Native Mass Spectrometry: A Glimpse Into the Machinations of Biology | Technology Networks

Cryo-EM | Gatan, Inc.





On June 22 Eric Stewart of the Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey, a component of UW-Madison’s Division of Extension, leads us on a Midsummer Nite’s Dream deep underground to get to the Bottom of groundwater contamination with his talk on Geologic Mapping.


Description:  Dissolved arsenic in private drinking water wells remains an important problem for many Wisconsin residents. Arsenic is a known carcinogen that can lead to various cancers. While release mechanisms and sources of arsenic have been well studied in parts of northeastern Wisconsin, less work has been done to the south in Fond du Lac and Dodge counties. Additionally, the role of bedrock folding, fracturing, and faulting has not been systematically studied to determine if a link to arsenic detection probability exists.

This talk will describe the various causes of arsenic contamination in groundwater wells in eastern Wisconsin, as well as ongoing work to try to model risk and potential solutions. Using geologic maps as the foundation, this talk will describe the process of identifying and quantifying statistically significant variables that influence arsenic detection in wells. It will also cover modeling cbb to determine how casing requirements on groundwater wells might help reduce risk.


Bio:  Eric studies the Precambrian to the Paleozoic history of bedrock folds, faults, and fractures in Wisconsin, and how these structures affect Wisconsin’s natural resources today. Most of his research is based on the construction of geologic maps. He uses new geologic mapping to solve problems in the geosciences from the plate tectonics scale (such as how subduction zones initiate) to the local scale (e.g. the probability of detecting arsenic across a township). He has worked at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey since 2019.


Explore More:





On June 29 Jean Phillips and Tim Schmit return to WN@TL to paint for us the celestial panorama of “Wisconsin’s Role in Earth Imaging from Geostationary Orbit, 1966-2022″


Description:  Phillips and Schmit will share the story of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s leading role in imaging Earth from geostationary orbit, past and present. The Spin-Scan Cloud Camera, invented at UW and carried on NASA satellites in the 1960s, pioneered continuous viewing of weather from space.


Those technologies were further refined to support the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, including the most recent satellite in the series, GOES-18, with its high-resolution imaging capabilities. Advancements in data and imagery collection from today’s weather satellites are resulting in better forecasts and warnings to the public, saving countless lives.


Better data, better forecasts and better warnings to the public are saving lives.


Bio:  Tim Schmit works at the Advanced Satellite Products Branch (ASPB) within NOAA’s NESDIS Center of Satellite Applications and Research located in Madison, Wisconsin. Tim had a lead role in the band selection for the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) on GOES-R and has played a key science role during the on-orbit check-outs of GOES-8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and now 18. Tim has published over 100 journal articles, several book chapters, and co-edited a book, all associated with some aspect of GOES. Tim received his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Bio:  As librarian, historian and communicator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center, Jean Phillips has led the development of collections and services to support research and education in the field of satellite meteorology — past and present. She is a past chair of the American Meteorological Society’s History Committee and co-authored a biography of Verner Suomi who is widely known as the ‘father of satellite meteorology.’ She earned her master’s degree from UW-Madison.


Explore More:





Hope to see you, in person or by zoom, at this week’s Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.


Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Division of Extension, Wisconsin 4-H



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