Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Microscope

Okay, so I may have posted that we were back a little too soon, but what can I say? Interviewing and preparing for vet school is difficult. Victory dances for these things take time and effort. Plus Jessica has been working like 70 hour weeks. (And I thought I was hard working.)

Anyway, I have decided my first post in the "Things Every Biologist Should Know" theme is going to be the microscope. Specifically, the compound microscope- one of the most important tools to a biologist... and one of the tools that biology students severely misunderstand. The ways of the microscope are not our ways. But with a little patience and understanding, we can smoothly assimilate into the culture of the compound microscope.

First, RESPECT THE MICROSCOPE. You can't finish your lab/project/research without it. Let's face it, microscopes and biologists are symbiotic. Plus, these things are expensive. Most people spend less buying a new cell phone than they would on a microscope. The lesson here is: treat compound microscopes as though they are your car or your laptop. When carrying one, use one hand to grip the arm and your other hand to support the base.

So, you all know which part is the arm and which is the base, right? I'm sure all our readers do... but in case you want to educate someone you know, here is a diagram. Familiarize yourselves. After all what is biology all about? The study of life and living organisms? NO. Biology is about memorization. Now get to it.

It is very important to understand magnification when using a microscope. Why? Because if you are in college you will be tested on it. Also because if you use one in research, you'll need to record which objective was used. You know what an objective is, right? Right, because you've studied the diagram. Typical objectives are 4x, 10x, 40x, and 100x. Eyepieces usually have a magnification of 10x. Total magnification of whatever you are looking at is the eyepiece magnification multiplied by the magnification of the objective. Even I can handle this math.

Now, let's talk about focusing. If you look through the microscope, and all you see are gray squigglies floating around.... then you are certainly not focused. Unless you are looking at some sort of gray squiggly living organism. Always begin focusing on the lowest objective. Use the coarse focus knob to find your subject. Focus as well as you can with the coarse focus, then fine tune the focus with the (wait for it) fine focus knob. Oh my gosh, these names make sense! If you need a higher objective, simply switch to that objective and use the fine focus. Basically, you should never need to use the coarse focus once you are finished with the lowest objective.

Oh, and always put the stage at the highest point and focus while the stage is moving downwards. This way you don't risk moving the stage too high up. If the stage hits the objective, both the objective lens and the slide might break. Kaching- that is going to cost you.

I could run on and on about the techniques, oil, and the best ways to use a compound microscope, but this sure is a lot to read. So I leave you, dear readers, with this: NEVER be afraid to ask questions! No one knows everything- not your professors, colleagues, not even Darwin (Sorry, Jessica, I know how much you love him). Biology is about learning... I mean memorization...alright fine, Biology is about a lot of things. The point is, use your resources and don't be afraid to keep learning.

And through learning, you can make the ways of the compound microscope your ways.

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