Montana Tech Receives National Science Foundation Grant for Confocal Microscope

The National Science Foundation has awarded Montana Tech a grant award in the amount of $364,383 to support the project entitled, “MRI: Acquisition of a confocal microscope to enhance biological and materials research at Montana Tech.”
The project is under the direction of Katherine Zodrow, Environmental Engineering assistant professor; Martha Apple, Biological Sciences professor; and Jack L. Skinner, head of the Mechanical Engineering Department and associate professor. Faculty from Geological Engineering, Geophysical Engineering, Chemistry and Geochemistry, the Center for Advanced Mineral, Metallurgical, and Material Processing (CAMP), and Mechanical Engineering at Montana Tech, Life Sciences at Salish Kootenai College, and Biology at University of Montana Western will also participate.

The confocal microscope can be used to build accurate three-dimensional models of organisms and materials at the microscale. When used with special dyes, the microscope can identify specific types of microorganisms or minerals and give information about their environment. This technology is routinely used in the biological and environmental fields, and its use is growing in materials science and geology. The applications of the instrument are diverse, and this microscope will be used to understand how microorganisms influence metals in mine waste-impacted streams, explore interactions between microorganisms and rocks in Yellowstone’s hot springs, develop nano-composite materials for wound healing, understand how bacteria interact with engineered systems, explore plant responses to climate change, and characterize algae that can be used to produce biofuels. The microscope will join Montana Tech’s growing suite of analytical instruments, and will enable countless projects in the future.

“The confocal microscope will be a great addition to Montana Tech’s research capabilities for so many fields. Congratulations to Katherine and her collaborators at Tech, SKC, and Western for their successful proposal. It is a real achievement to win an NSF major equipment grant,” said Beverly Hartline, Montana Tech’s Vice Chancellor for Research.

In addition to enhancing the research capacity at Montana Tech, SKC, and UM Western, the microscope will be used by students in several courses at these three universities. “We expect the new confocal microscope to reach 85 undergraduates and 20 graduate students in the classroom in the first year,” says Katherine Zodrow. “When students use the microscope in the lab or see it used remotely in a lecture, they learn about its capabilities. Then, when they do a senior design project, work on their thesis, or work for a company, they know that this is an instrument that is available to them.”