An added dimension to high school biology class
High school science classes are taking on an added dimension. EPFL startup Nanolive will run a competition to select three local high schools that will be given the use of the company's microscope, which is capable of observing living cells in real time and 3D.
3D action with a few clicks of the mouse: for high school students, observing cells in biology class may soon seem a little more like a game. A new type of microscope developed by EPFL spinoff Nanolive shows users the inner workings of cells, such as banana, blood, onions and amoeba. It was designed for researchers, as it offers better resolution than any other commercially available microscope, and it is so easy to use that it could make the sciences more appealing to young people. In a competition organized as part of the upcoming Planète Santé fair, three local high schools will be given the use of one of the microscopes for several months.
The company has already been loaning its microscopes to schools in recent months, including several public and private high schools in the Lake Geneva Region. “We loan the microscopes out to schools not so much to make money but rather to provide a service,” said Lisa Pollaro, the COO of Nanolive. “Our loan program for schools is supported by our partner Thieme, which will fund the competition prizes.”
A growing community of users
Nanolive offers tutorials that make it easy for everyone to understand how the microscope works. In one of the experiments, users can watch starch turn into sugar in bananas as they ripen. Some banana flesh is placed between two tiny plates of glass. After a few focus adjustments, just like on a conventional microscope, the cells appear on the computer screen. Users can then use a software tool to color in the various components. After identifying the starch molecules, they can examine them in detail.
Nanolive, which is based at EPFL's Innovation Park, offers two other fascinating tutorial experiments: observing amoebas in aquarium water and analyzing the various components in a drop of blood. “Our long-term aim is to come up with experiments that dovetail with the schools' curricula, and to create a community of users who will share their experience online,” says Pollaro.
Using the microscope may seem like child’s play, but this is a cutting-edge technology. It is used in research laboratories and universities around the world, including Harvard, Stanford and the Mayo Clinic in the United States, and Riken in Japan. It was developed as part of an EPFL doctoral thesis completed in 2013, and the underlying technology is based on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It takes photos at different depths in the cell, which it then reassembles using its smart holographic software. The software records the phase and amplitude of the wave refracted by the various parts of the cell, which it can then tint different colors. This digital process allows the user to explore changes in the cell in real time.
Nanolive is organizing a competition for local high schools as part of the Planète Santé fair opening on 24 November at the SwissTech Convention Center. The winning schools will be able to use one microscope free of charge for four months. Competitors have to make a short video that describes how they plan to use the microscope and conveys their enthusiasm.