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December 2013
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New lab puts U of M research under the microscope

University scientists heap praise on new facility.

By Greg Russell

Research into material so small the human eye can’t detect it is leading to big-time scientific data and results at the University of Memphis, thanks to a new high-tech lab.

In May, the U of M’s Integrated Microscopy Center (IMC) opened a new materials science laboratory in one of the hottest career fields in advanced engineering and industrial applications. The new lab houses a clean room and several pieces of advanced equipment: a deposition unit, X-ray photon electron spectrometer, mask aligner and other high-tech items.

“This new lab was part of a strong commitment by our university to build a materials science program to foster education and research in these exploding career fields,” says IMC director Omar Skalli. “The training of students in materials science is important because there are many job opportunities in the field in Tennessee.” The state ranks in the top second quarter nationally in terms of materials science employment.

Skalli describes the IMC and its labs as a fee-for-service, shared research facility offering high-end instrumentation, technical support and education to the U of M research community, as well as to other regional academic institutions and industries.

“This core facility is integrated in that it serves the different scientific disciplines at the University, including chemistry, geology, life sciences and physics, as well as the different engineering fields,” he says. “This integration is designed to foster interdisciplinary collaborations, as well as academic and industrial partnerships. The IMC is the University’s primary shared, core research facility.

The Integrated Microscopy Center in the FedEx Institute of Technology offers various labs to U of M and off-campus scientists who are doing research into materials science.
The Integrated Microscopy Center offers various labs to U of M and off-campus scientists who are doing research into materials science. 

Skalli says the latest in microscopy research tools is offered at the IMC, including light microscopes, a transmission electron microscope and a scanning electron microscope. The IMC also provides the equipment necessary to prepare samples for observation with these various modalities of microscopy to the local research community.

“The light and electron microscopes at the IMC are essential tools for U of M faculty and graduate students who are working on biological, bio-medical, bio-engineering and materials sciences projects,” says Skalli.

The lab’s reach may end up in battlefields and hospitals, among other places. Research conducted in the new facility by U of M scientists Dr. Joel Bumgardner and Biomedical Engineering Chair of Excellence holder Dr. Warren Haggard has caught the attention of the U.S. Army, which has invested in their research into unique antibiotic delivery systems that are well-suited for combat zones and hospital care.

“We are working on materials and devices to locally deliver therapeutic agents such as antibiotics to prevent and treat large wound infections,” says Bumgardner, who added the pair is also researching materials to facilitate the regeneration of bone and related musculoskeletal tissues.

“In this research we have been investigating the use of nano-structured materials that provide unique properties for both drug delivery and tissue engineering,” says the professor of biomedical engineering. “In addition, since these materials are intended to interact with host cells and tissues, we are very interested in the interactions of the cells/tissue with the surfaces of the implant materials. The electron microscopes (in the lab) have provided us the means to view and evaluate the shape and size of the nano-structured materials and to observe cell attachment and growth on 3-dimensional surfaces. These observations and characterizations are not possible by other means.”  

The U of M’s director of Research Development, Deborah Hernandez, says the IMC’s new materials science lab greatly enhances a key target area for University scientists.

Materials Science is one of our primary focus areas for research development at the U of M, so we have been working across academic units to systematically build infrastructure and hire faculty in this highly interdisciplinary area,” says Hernandez. “Research advances in both fundamental and applied materials science impact everything from electronics to energy to biomedical diagnostics, implants and therapeutics. At the U of M, we have developed particular expertise in experimental and computational bio/nanomaterials research across our engineering, chemistry, biology and physics faculty — an area of particular relevance to our region’s biodevice industry and medical research community.”

The IMC enables research collaborations between academic scientists and medical device researchers, such as Medtronic, Smith & Nephew and Wright Medical. And by providing valuable training and hands-on experiences for students, the IMC plays a central role in meeting workforce development needs in this important and growing segment of our local economy.

In addition to biomedical engineering studies, several projects are underway that aim to utilize these sophisticated instruments to better understand the mechanisms of cell motility in cancer, to characterize the effect of toxins such as dioxin on the health of the skin, to assess the role of specific proteins in neurodegenerative diseases, to characterize the structure of implant materials and to evaluate the potential toxicity of these materials in the organism.

Skalli says the use of microscopes is nothing new in materials science and cell-based research projects, but the more advanced equipment now housed in the IMC/s materials science lab, much of which is unique to the region, represents a significant advance in our capabilities.

“Over the years, different types of microscopes have been developed,” Skalli explains. “Light microscopes enable distinguishing between cell types and can identify the largest organelles such as the nucleus and vacuoles (organelles involved in cell ‘digestion’). In addition to their use in research, light microscopes are the tools with which pathologists diagnose diseases such as cancer.

“But light microscopes are unable to reveal the very small matter. Cell biologists now use transmission electron microscopes (TEMs) to detect cellular features that cannot be resolved by light microscopy. Thanks to TEMs, which our new lab offers, we know how the smallest forms of life  — viruses and some bacteria — look and we have learned about cellular organelles invisible to the light microscopes, such as ribosomes and very thin filaments responsible for cell contraction and motility.”

Cell biology is the sub-discipline of biology that studies cells and their mutual interactions. Biologists strive to accurately describe the internal components of the cells and to understand their role in cellular processes such as cell division, cell motility, cell metabolism and cell death. Cell biology is closely related to other areas of biology, such as developmental biology, genetics and molecular biology. It also is central to understanding and developing treatments for many diseases, such as cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and myopathies.

Materials science researchers have many other uses.

“Materials scientists on campus also use the IMC to characterize the fine structure of the materials that they synthesize, which include magnetic nanoparticles, hydrogels for sustained drug delivery and gold particle for cancer therapy,” Skalli says. “The materials created by these scientists often have minuscule features or defects that are revealed by microscopes. For instance, tiny fractures in a material may result in the failure of objects manufactured with material.”

Skalli says another application of microscopy to materials science is the detection of small dust specks on microchips.

“There is currently a great interest in very small, bead-like materials called nanoparticles. With the help of light and electron microscopes, materials scientists can characterize the size and the shapes of these nanoparticles. And finally, materials science meets biology as there a great interest in assessing the potential toxicity of nanoparticles and in using them to ferry therapeutic agents to specific organ targets.”

Skalli says the IMC’s new lab not only has tremendous benefits to cellular and materials scientists, it sheds positive light on the University.

“Several of these studies are funded by federal grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and help generate publications and presentations at meetings that establish national recognition to the University of Memphis as a technologically oriented research institution,” he concludes.

For more information on the IMC’s new lab, call (901) 678-4233.

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