A significant part of the scientific process is documenting what you observe. This activity is not merely a formality for the record. In some cases, it’s not until we study and analyze our results that the experimental situation can start to clarify.
In being charged with setting up a new cell biology lab, one of the first obstacles I hit was the state of our fluorescence microscope. It is a perfectly serviceable old beast, but it was lacking two essential components. First, it didn’t have a filter cube needed to detect red, one of the four major fluorescent color channels that cell biologists have in their palette (the others being blue, green and a wavelength known as “far red” that the human eye can’t see). Second and much more problematically, it lacked a camera to collect all the images. True, one of my young researchers was getting pretty good at aiming an iPhone camera down the ocular (which, if you’ve not tried this, is not dissimilar to playing a very frustrating video game), but this only worked well for white light.
Being cash-poor at the moment, I decided we could live without the red filter cube (which costs about a grand) for the time being. But something really needed to be done about the camera. A proper camera not only documents what you’ve done, but is a lot more sensitive than the human eye. Using its more discerning sensor, you can discover things about your experiment that you couldn’t by peering down the eyepiece. And so it was that we finally scraped together enough dosh — £4,000 including a PC and software to run it — to buy the cheapest decent CCD camera set-up that we could afford.
Behold the Infinity 3 — the most gorgeous piece of kit I’ve laid eyes on in a long time. She’s only about the size of my palm, but she packs a serious wallup. Respect.
Before the camera’s arrival, we’d do an experiment and then wait the week or so required to get a slot on a superior microscope housed on another campus, about thirty minutes away by bus. Normally when you do an experiment, you look down the scope straight away, take some pics, brew yourself an especially strong cup of coffee and process the images back in your office, looking at them with various image analysis tools and squeezing out every iota of information possible. Armed with that new knowledge, you can set up the next experiment – sometimes that very same day. So the research goes really fast when you have instant feedback. But if it takes a week to know if something worked properly, your research crawls along at a glacial pace – which in the current competitive climate, is deadly.
So the new camera is cheap, but pretty darned cheerful. Even Harry, my hard-to-impress MRes student, had to admit it took great pictures.
So now all I need is that red filter cube. You know what to get me for my next birthday.