Thursday, May 29, 2014

"When is the STORM coming?"

While thinking about my post yesterday on the software that I depend on, I decided that I want to tell a short story that illustrates a trend I've been noticing with how some people are starting to view the role of technology in research.    


I use a substantial amount of microscopy in my research, but most of it is fairly "low-tech" in today's world.  I mainly use wide-field or laser-scanning confocal to do live-cell fluorescence imaging of various indicator dyes for things like calcium, pH, or nitric oxide, which I consider as much of an art as a science.  You need to now how to keep the cells happy and healthy while you are imaging them (every kind of cell is different), and know how to troubleshoot, which comes from experience.  The important point for this story, though, is that wide-field and confocal microscopes have been around for years and years.  This technology are nothing new, but they can still be very useful and very expensive.  

However, their cost pales in comparison to the costs of some of the newer "super resolution" microscopes that use more fancy optical or computer-based methods to increase resolution.  Resolution in microscopy is the smallest distance between two points at which they can be distinguished from each other.  It is basically the finest level at which you can see detail in an object, be it a cell, microchip, etc. If two points are below the microscope's resolution, they will blur together and look like one.  Increasing resolution can let you see finer details of, for example, a cell's structural components, called the "cytoskeleton."  Obviously this can be very useful for some applications, particularly in biology where you are looking at parts of cells that are very small.        

One of these fancy super resolution microscopes is the Nikon N-STORM, one of which was ordered last year by a lab in my building and finally installed.  I'm sure it is a fine instrument (I really like Nikon microscopes), but I haven't tried it out yet.  However, people have known it has been coming for quite a while, and a few have been asking me over the past several months, "When is the STORM coming?"  

I just tell them that I have nothing to do with it and they have to talk with the lab that actually bought it.  They ask me this question because over the past few years I have become the point person/caretaker for a confocal microscope on my floor, and as a consequence I end up helping a lot of people out with their imaging.  As I've said, I have done a lot of live-cell imaging and I've also done my share of immunofluorescence (labeling proteins with fluorescently-tagged antibodies as a way to see them), so I'm OK with this role.  Sometimes it's fun, and I usually learn something from trying to help someone get their experiments to work.  

However, what I've noticed lately is that a few of the people who routinely ask me to look at their immuno-staining experiments have changed their attitudes a bit.  When I tell them that their staining, on our low-tech confocal, looks mostly like background (i.e., crap) and that whatever they did clearly did not work, instead of asking what they can do to try to make it work, they will say, "Well, I'll just wait to try it on the STORM."  

Well, ladies and gentlemen, crap viewed under a microscope is still crap.  Crap under a super-resolution microscope is super-resolution crap.  I'm sure the N-STORM can make immunofluorescence look really awesome, but it is not going to make something out of nothing.  Case-in-point, when one of these people that I was helping tried to take his actin/phalloidin staining (that clearly wasn't working for him) and looked at it on the STORM, it still looked like crap.        

My analogy is this: If I stand in front of a wall with the $30 Bushnell binoculars that I bought as a ten year old kid and still have, I will see the wall and nothing beyond it.  If I stand in front of the same wall with a $2000 pair of Leica binoculars, I still won't see beyond the wall.  I need to actually find (or make) a window in order to see beyond the wall, and only then will the Leica binoculars blow away my cheap pair of Bushnells.  Until then, I'll just be looking at a wall.          

Sometimes we think that technology can do everything, but technology can't make something from nothing.  It can only help us along.  You still need to know the art of how to use the technology as well as how to get to the point where the technology can help.  We need to not let over-faith in technology result in laziness.  Otherwise, we're just like a bunch of alchemists waiting for some fancy piece of equipment to turn lead into gold.    

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