Tagide deCarvalho was about to image the phages – viruses that infect bacteria – collected by a group of summer students, when her 40-year old transmission electron microscope (TEM) gave out. deCarvalho, director of the Keith R. Porter Imaging Facility at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), was disappointed because the students wouldn’t be able to complete their research project and it could take several years to win a grant to replace the equipment.

The TEM at UMBC had been heavily used for teaching and research. HHMI’s Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomic and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) program, last year engaged 3,400 undergraduates in authentic research at more than 80 colleges and universities around the country. Students in the program identify and characterize new viruses from soil, and a key element of the program is to image the phages by negative stain TEM. HHMI staff rely on the TEM for advancing the science of the SEA-PHAGES course as well as for training instructors from new schools that join the project. The microscope is also utilized by UMBC researchers from a wide range of disciplines, from biological sciences to materials science. In spite of the great need, the scope was so old that it was difficult to find a technician who could service the model, and this time it had given out for good.

In a stroke of good timing, Tamir Gonen’s research group at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia announced that they were looking to donate a TEM that they no longer needed. The scope had been gently used to examine protein samples, which were further imaged with more powerful microscopes to determine the protein structures. Viknesh Sivanathan, HHMI Science Education Program Officer who manages the SEA-PHAGES program, and David Asai, Senior Program Director for Science Education at HHMI, contacted Gonen to see if the microscope could be donated to UMBC’s imaging facility, where it would fill a great need and serve the UMBC and HHMI communities.

HHMI and UMBC have collaborated in the past. An institutional grant from HHMI to UMBC has supported the Meyerhoff Scholars Program since 2006, and since 2008 HHMI’s SEA-PHAGES program has been hosted at UMBC. In 2014, HHMI supported the renovation of a lab in the Meyerhoff building to serve the SEA-PHAGES students and UMBC undergraduates. Gonen agreed to donate the TEM to UMBC, where it would build on these existing joint projects.

On hearing from Sivanathan, deCarvalho said, “That’s the most exciting news I could have heard. We are all really happy. … It could have taken several years for us to try to get a scope through the normal channels of writing proposals,” she explained. It’s unusual for a microscope this new to become available, she noted. When the microscope -- the centerpiece of a brand new imaging facility at UMBC -- is unpacked and installed in its new home, deCarvalho plans to image the summer students’ phages first, so that they can finally complete their research project.