Cornell awarded grant for new atomic force microscope

Cornell College science students will soon get to work with a new atomic force microscope (AFM) thanks to a $195,695 grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust. 

Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Catherine Volle
Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Catherine Volle

Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Catherine Volle submitted the grant application to give students more opportunities to explore the microscopic world during classes and to make advances in their research.

“One of the most important pieces of teaching science at Cornell is that students get to learn science like a scientist, and adding an AFM to our growing toolbox provides another way for students to do just that,” Volle said. “It’s also a highly interdisciplinary technique, so it will help students make connections between their classwork from across the natural sciences. It’s also impressive to tell a future employer or graduate school that you’ve had real experience with this type of advanced instrumentation.”

The microscope produces highly detailed, topographical images of biological material and uses the downward force of a microscopic probe to test the physical parameters of samples for stiffness and elasticity. For example, students will be able to follow a single cell as it’s attacked by an antibiotic or look at the length of a piece of DNA with the new microscope.

Dozens of students will get their hands on the new microscope this year including students in courses such as Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Analytical Chemistry. Volle says the AFM is the perfect addition for students learning on the One Course At A Time calendar.   

“Cornell College takes great pride in offering students distinctive training with state-of-the-art instrumentation,” Volle wrote in the grant application. “The ease of sample preparation and data acquisition makes AFM an excellent technique for the block plan; students can prepare and analyze samples in the same day, producing a vast array of data that can be analyzed over the course of a block.”

The AFM will also be put to good use for the Cornell Summer Research Institute. Last summer Volle’s students used an AFM at another college to complete their research. In their exploration of the issues around antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the machine allowed them to more thoroughly study bacteria and produce results that will contribute to the ongoing worldwide research against antibiotic resistance–an issue that could heavily impact medical care.

The AFM will be housed in the Russell Science Center when it arrives later this winter, along with other advanced equipment such as the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer, DNA sequencer, and fluorescent microscope.