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Microscopy facility finds ways to stay safe while in-person

Mouraj Chodhury, 27, uses the Transmission Electron Microscope in the Microscopy facility in Biosciences on the campus of Central Michigan University on Wednesday, Nov. 11.

During the Fall 2020 semester, online classes became the normal format. For the microscopy department at Central Michigan University, a fully online learning experience is impossible, but they’re making the best of the situation.

Students studying microscopes have to have hands-on experience but have found it difficult to get enough time in the lab due to COVID-19 protocols.

Philip Oshel, the microscopy facility director, is in charge of supervising students using the equipment. 

Beginner students hoping to use the microscopes are limited to the hours when Oshel is present until they pass a scope test, giving them full access to the lab

“You have to be hands-on with a scope,” Oshel said. “Even a simple thing like how you put a sample in the scope takes practice.”

In previous semesters, Oshel has been available Monday through Friday, 8-5 but when the new semester started, his hours were cut back to Monday through Thursday. 

“That’s been a bit detrimental to the course, him getting cut back,” said Eric Linton, microscopy department faculty member. “If Phils not here on Friday it limits [students] at the beginning of class.”

For microscopy students, a major part of their study is developing muscle memory. Students have to be able to adjust microscopes while looking at their sample, Oshel said.

“If they can’t physically get in,” Linton said. “We really can’t teach the course.”

When CMU went fully online in March 2020, Linton relied on pre-recorded videos he already had so students could at least get a visual sense of how to use the equipment.

During the Fall 2020 semester, new safety precautions have been taken on in order to get students in the lab safely.

Plastic coverings have been placed over equipment such as keyboards. Lab time sign-ups, which used to be sheets of paper on the doors, have moved to a Google calendar. 

Students are expected to wear gloves, socially distance while in the lab and wipe down any equipment they use with provided disinfectants.

What makes this doable is the small number of people with access to the lab.

“My class size is, I think, only five people,” Lake in the Hills, Illinois senior Belle Fabella said. “The four main courses are, I think, light, confocal, T.E.M., S.E.M. Usually you would go through [and] you’re whole class is literally five people.”

Currently, there are three undergraduate microscopy majors using the lab. In addition, grad students regularly use the microscopy lab to conduct research.