Making a Living from Microscopy

The Professional Scene

(Chris Jefferies -

Why professionals?

Amateurs do microscopy because they enjoy it, professionals to earn a living. Although this simple statement is true, it leaves a great deal unsaid. Most professionals enjoy microscopy every bit as much as amateurs, though some of the sample preparation and statistical analysis may be repetitive and tedious.

Professionals are necessary because there's important work to be done by trained staff using equipment that is often expensive and difficult to use correctly. As in most walks of life, professionals can devote all their time to a specialized area so that they become highly skilled and effective in their work.

Professional microscopists certainly do earn their living by examining the very small, so who employs them and what do they do?

A wide range of duties

Modern society depends on microscopy in many ways. Here are a few examples.

What do they do?

Most professional microscopists spend relatively little time actually looking through the eyepiece of an instrument. Most of the time is spent obtaining and preparing the specimen, developing photographs or taking measurements, using computers to analyse or process images, writing up the results, and doing the necessary administrative paperwork involved in keeping a modern laboratory running smoothly and successfully.

Obtaining a sample is not always as easy as it may appear. Sometimes a long series of experimental treatments must be applied first so that the treated samples can be compared with untreated controls. Microscopy can then pinpoint the effect of the treatment. In biology chemicals might be applied to leaves to find out what effect they have, in materials science a strip of metal might be repeatedly flexed to see how its crystal structure is affected.

Once specimens are collected they must be carefully labelled and may need to be preserved under special conditions or treated with chemicals to modify them in a controlled way. Biological tissue is often fixed chemically, rapidly frozen, embedded in wax or plastic, cut into thin sections, squashed or smeared, then stained and mounted. Metal or mineral samples may need to be carefully polished or cut. These processes can take a long time and great care, only when they are complete can the specimen be taken to the microscope for study.

Here are a few Web sites which illustrate the sort of work involved.

Normally the specimen will be examined and described by making notes and drawings, usually it will also be photographed, and it will often need to be carefully measured. Particular features may require counting for statistical analysis or for stereology. If photographs have been taken they are usually developed and printed by the microscopist in a specially equipped darkroom. Sometimes this work is farmed out to a commercial processing lab, but usually not. Photomicrographs have special requirements that are often hard to explain to a non-microscopist.

Image analysis and image processing are becoming more widely used as computers fall in price and continue to increase in speed and power. Image analysis provides measurements of area, perimeter and number of features, image processing modifies the contrast range, enhances edges or introduces false colours. Using these techniques to full effect can be time consuming too.

Writing up results is an important part of every scientist's work. It may not be very glamorous and is often overlooked by the layman, but results are of no value if they are not communicated. The results may be presented in a report for internal use (hospital, industry) or published in a scientific journal or book for use by other scientists worldwide.

Administrative paperwork is essential too. Professional microscopists must apply for grants, justify the purchase of new instruments, arrange contracts for the supply and maintenance of equipment, and make sure the lab doesn't run out of essential materials. Running out of grinding paste or a particular stain could bring work to a halt until more can be bought, running out of liquid nitrogen could destroy expensive equipment by allowing it to warm above a critical temperature.

Professional equipment

Most amateurs hanker after a better microscope or a more powerful objective lens. Everyone has a wish list. Professionals are just the same, although their equipment may cost hundreds of thousands of pounds there's usually something else they could use if there was a little more cash!

Professional labs have a range of microscopes depending on the type of work which is to be done. Most labs have an assortment of light microscopes from the humble hand lens (a very useful device for amateur and professional alike) through stereo and bright field instruments which would be familiar to most amateurs, to large research microscopes with photographic gear, darkfield, phase contrast, Nomarski interference contrast, and fluorescence. Many labs may also need a scanning electron microscope (SEM) and transmission electron microscope (TEM), either of these may be fitted with extra features like X-ray analysis, scanning transmission (STEM) and other systems.

Many other kinds of microscope are in use today, often for special purposes. Microscope technology continues to advance rapidly so new devices will continue to appear in the years to come. The confocal light microscope clears away all the out-of-focus clutter to give clear images of internal structures. The acoustic microscope uses sound waves instead of light, so the images contain information about the sample's mechanical properties. X-ray and ion beam microscopes are available, so too are the extraordinary scanning probe microscopes which 'feel' the surface of a sample down to atomic scales.

Take a tour round some of the world's microscopy labs to see what sort of equipment they are using.

The microscope itself is only part of the story. Sample preparation may require milling, grinding, polishing, chemical fixation, specialist freezing techniques, embedding in wax or plastic, sectioning, staining, or complex chemistry or biochemistry such as immunocytochemistry. Equipment for all these methods and more requires at least as much space, time and money as the microscopes themselves. Details of some of these techniques are on the Web too.

Professional societies

Just as amateurs have clubs and societies, so too do the professionals. There are local societies, national societies, and international societies. Meetings are held where microscopists can compare methods and results and discuss some of the difficult issues, advances in techniques and equipment and so forth.

Many active societies also publish journals, books and proceedings of various kinds.

Getting alongside the professionals

Amateur clubs could organize visits to professional microscopy labs where their members could see specialist equipment at work, and even have a chance to use it briefly. It is fascinating to see how the 'other half' works.

If you belong to a local club or society why not suggest a visit of this kind at your next meeting? To organize it, take a look at the list of academic sites and search through the Web pages of any in your area. Make contact with biology departments, mechanical engineering departments, and others that might use microscopes in their work. Look especially for light or electron microscope departments. Note down the details and write to them, or send an e-mail if an address is provided.

Be polite but persistent, most universities or research institutes are happy to arrange conducted tours for small, interested groups, but often success will depend on contacting the right person. Don't forget museums, hospitals, and industrial companies as many of these will also have active microscopy departments too. Ask if it would be permitted to write up the visit for your local newspaper, most editors welcome local-interest stories and might even be willing to send a reporter or photographer. Some tour hosts might say no, but many will be happy to have some good local publicity. There may even be future club members amongst the paper's readership, who knows?

There are many parallels between the worlds of astronomy and microscopy, both involve magnified images of objects which subtend very small angles in order to reveal details invisible to the naked eye. In astronomical circles a well-developed co-operative effort exists in which amateurs help the professionals by conducting mass surveys, reporting unusual events, and helping out when large numbers of observers are needed to cover great areas.

So far this kind of co-operative effort hasn't taken hold in the world of microscopy. There's absolutely no reason for this, at least in principle. Working together could bring large benefits to both amateurs and professionals and has already been suggested by Maurice Smith in a short Web article.

How can I become a professional?

Making the jump from amateur to professional may not be easy. A university degree is by no means essential, though it may help. There are few qualifications in microscopy as such, most microscopists will have a degree in biology, or physics, or materials science, or medicine or some other discipline.

Once you have such a degree and some experience in scientific work you may find that you need to use a microscope for your research. Specialist courses and training are then available to help you gain the skills needed for this work.

Other professional microscopists fill a support role, they have a responsibility for maintaining the instruments, keeping them running in top condition, operating them for short-term or occasional users, training those who need longer-term access. For this sort of work it may be possible to start with good school-level qualifications, taking a junior support role at first and working up through your career to take greater responsibility with growing experience.

But maybe, just maybe, it's better to earn your bread some other way and retain microscopy as an absorbing hobby. Professional microscopists certainly get to use some impressive machinery and equipment, but only a few rise to the heights where they can study whatever specimens they like, a privilege shared by every amateur! And all of them have to accept the drudgery of routine work which often keeps them away from the eyepiece for longer than they might like.

No, amateur microscopy has its advantages after all; make the most of it!


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