Science and Technology Facilities Council
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What do microscopy and astronomy have in common?

… cool tech that helps us to see more clearly through 3D biological tissue samples and into the Universe

To find out more we talk to Benjamin (Ben) Gore – who is just about to complete his 4-year Engineering Doctorate (EngD). Graduates who want to explore a career in industry often opt to do an EngD, as an alternative to the traditional PhD. Ben’s EngD has been a collaboration with the Advanced Microscopy Group at the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) at Heriot Watt University, and the applied optics engineering group at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Ben shares with us not only the outputs of his ground-breaking research, but how this partnership between industry and academia, has enabled the sharing of knowledge between disciplines – driving advances in both astronomy and microscopy, and giving the next generation of scientists and engineers the kind of world-class skills that are in high demand by employers.

Tell us about your research Ben?

“As the microscope begins to focus deeper into the sample, more and more aberrations (or distortions) occur. Using a high-tech solution called ‘adaptive optics’– which is used extensively in astronomy – we can correct for these optical aberrations, and see better through the sample.”“Essentially, I am investigating how to improve the quality of the image we see when looking at a 3D biological tissue sample through a microscope.

That’s really exciting. So you’re using tech developed for astronomy and applying it in microscopy! How does it work?

“In astronomy, turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere blurs a telescope’s view of space. Adaptive Optics (AO) is the tech solution to fix that problem. Essentially, how it works is that AO measures the distortion, and then sophisticated, deformable mirrors which are controlled by computers, in real-time, correct the distortion – enabling the world’s telescopes to bring the Universe into focus.  In fact, here’s a really good digest of AO in astronomy by my supervisor at UK ATC, Dr Noah Schwartz. He breaks the area down into 8 cool AO astrofacts.

“The main difference however, between AO in astronomy and AO in microscopy is that in astronomy you have what’s called a wavefront sensor. This is a camera combined with a special set of optics and software that measures the distortion of the incoming light, taken from a ‘guide star’. The guide star is a light source bright enough and close enough to what the astronomer wants to observe, that acts as a reference point. A guide star is often created using a laser. If you’ve seen cool photos of huge telescopes with laser beams shooting from them… that’s AO in action!

“We usually don’t have the benefit of a guide star or a wavefront sensor in microscopy, but we have the advantage that these aberrations are changing very slowly, so we can generally view them as being static. This means we can correct for aberrations in a sample using a software algorithm that calculates the distortion from a small number of camera images, and then correct for it using the deformable mirror. My work has focused on the use of a technique called multifocal plane microscopy (MUM) where a section of the sample being imaged is acquired in a single camera frame. In my EngD I have been investigating what improvements can be made to the image quality of a 3D biological tissue sample captured through MUM, using AO systems. Here is an example of the results I have got, applying AO for microscopy with a tissue sample.

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