New Technology Advances Scientific Research

Julia Keklak uses a confocal microscope in her research.

Julia Keklak uses a confocal microscope in her research.

By Ed Moorhouse

Julia Keklak is quite literally seeing her research with newfound depth and clarity.

The Rutgers University–Camden graduate student peers into a confocal microscope that is showing her a three-dimensional image of a cell so that she can better identify where E. coli bacteria has attached to it.

“I’m infecting mammalian bladder cells with uropathogenic E. coli to take a look at the process of how the E. coli gets into the cells,” Keklak explains. “You can’t be 100 percent sure if the E. coli is inside the cell unless you have a cross-sectional view, and the confocal microscope allows us to see it in that way.”

The microscope is just one piece of state-of-the-art scientific equipment being infused into research labs at Rutgers–Camden this year thanks to about $5.3 million in funding from the Higher Education Equipment Leasing Fund earmarked for science research equipment. Rutgers–Camden received $11 million in ELF funding.

“This new influx of equipment allows us to do research that we couldn’t do before,” says Joseph Martin, a professor of biology and associate dean for science, mathematics, technology, and health sciences for the Rutgers–Camden Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Martin says the new equipment puts students at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels on the cutting edge of scientific research and enhances the work they’ve already been doing to make significant contributions to biology, chemistry, physics, and computer science.

In addition to the confocal microscope Keklak and other students are using, the funding has supported the purchase of a mass spectrometer, which separates and identifies molecules; a nuclear magnetic resonance instrument, used to confirm or identify molecular structures; and genetic sequencing equipment used in Rutgers–Camden’s sequencing lab in Camden’s Waterfront Technology Center.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned through using this new technology is how to think like a scientist and how to better analyze results,” says Keklak, a Pitman resident who earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Rutgers–Camden and is now pursuing her master’s degree. “That is invaluable to me as a researcher. Research presents a great opportunity, especially as I’ve gained new skills by working with this new equipment. You learn how to use the machines and you learn new techniques as you solve problems. Through my experience as an undergraduate and now as a graduate student, I’ve realized that research is something that I want to pursue, and that’s something I never imagined I’d be doing.”

One of the big advantages the new technology presents is the ability to see most experiments from start to finish right on campus, says Eric Klein, an assistant professor of biology at Rutgers–Camden.

“The biggest difference is that we can now do these experiments in house,” says Klein, who oversees Keklak’s E. coli research and also uses the gene sequencing technology to observe changes in gene expression.

“We’ve sequenced genomes before and we’ve had to send away a sample and you just hope you get your results back at a reasonable time,” he says. “Now, we have our data right here and we can operate much more efficiently. The new technology allows Rutgers–Camden students to do the sequencing or identification themselves, which saves time and money. That’s very valuable. It was a much longer process that could take weeks. We can get the information we need in a day now.”

Alex Roche, an associate professor of chemistry at Rutgers–Camden, is one of several Rutgers–Camden researchers using the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instrument, which he calls “the single most important modern characterization tool available to chemists” without which they would not be able to identify chemicals.

“The new instrument allows us to do things that our old machine could not, but more importantly for the student users, it is fully automated with a robotic sample changer, and an enhanced user interface allows less trained or skilled users to successfully operate the instrument,” Roche says. “Overall the new instrument makes NMR much more accessible to the science students and researchers. The plan is to incorporate the new NMR into many undergraduate chemistry teaching labs.”

Martin adds, “Any student who comes to Rutgers–Camden has the opportunity to do any kind of research if they want to, and this technology allows us to show students who are interested in Rutgers–Camden that they can perform cutting edge research here. That’s the difference between Rutgers–Camden and other universities.”

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