The generosity of an anonymous donor just put the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History's Collections & Research Center (CRC) on the cutting edge of science.

The department reports they recently swapped out their older Zeiss EVO 40XVP scanning electron microscope (SEM) model that had been in use since 2005, for a new high performance Zeiss EVO 10 LS — thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor and a substantial discount offered by technology company Zeiss.

Scanning electron microscopy allows scientists to produce images revealing the topography of specimens that are too small to effectively photograph with conventional microscopes. This technology is essential to the work of Curator of Malacology Daniel L. Geiger, Ph.D., who is a globally recognized authority on abalone, minute marine snails (little slit shells), and the orchid genus Oberonia.

Given the expansive capabilities of the newly added SEM technology, according to Geiger, he and his peers will now be able to make better use of specimens since the previous instrument operated either under a high vacuum or standard variable pressure that caused liquid to evaporate, limiting imaging to dry specimens only.

He explains that this new microscope has the capability to perform environmental scanning electron microscopy (E-SEM), where the electron beam remains under high vacuum while the specimen chamber contains water vapor at low pressure causing the specimen to be cooled or frozen.

This advancement will allow Geiger and other scientists to study “wet” specimens in a more natural state that will better preserve their delicate structures.

“This opens a whole host of new possibilities,” says Geiger, a co-author of five books and publisher of 70 scientific articles.

Geiger also trains students to use the instrument, and makes it available to the hundreds of visiting scholars who come from around the world each year to study the facility’s millions of specimens, artifacts, and documents for research that often informs conservation efforts in their own research.

The new instrument will also enable analysis of chemical elements that could be used to identify the constituent elements in unknown mineral samples, or to analyze historic pollution levels based on specimens.

The Department of Invertebrate Zoology is home to over 3.5 million shells, Geiger explains. “Some were collected from pristine preserves, some came from the inner Los Angeles harbor. We can leverage our collections with new technology to get additional data.”

Added benefits to the new system are a user-friendly touchscreen interface, an upgraded filament that will result in brighter images at about twice the resolution, and the capacity to produce larger imagery.

"Less work for me, better for the environment: everybody wins,” he said, explaining that its oil-free pumping system requires less maintenance and produces less waste.

Geiger has been working in electron microscopy for 20 years and expects to spend at least two weeks exploring the new machine’s capabilities.

He says he is especially looking forward to using the ESEM's "wet" capability to investigate whether some of his microorchid specimens produce nectar — which wasn't possible with the previous SEM's requirement that orchid specimen be dry.

“This is a pretty new technology that hasn’t been out for more than about three years. We’re at the bleeding edge again,” Geiger said.

For more information about the museum, visit sbnature.org.

Lisa André covers Valley Life for Santa Ynez Valley News. 

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