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San Joaquin Delta College's Unique Electron Microscopy Training Program

For nearly 40 years, students enrolled in the San Joaquin Delta College electron microscopy curriculum have been part of a unique two-year certificate program dedicated to practical, hands-on training of the future EM technician. It is one of only two such programs at the community college level in the country.

Approximately 15 students graduate each year from the Stockton, California community college. They go on to find jobs at engineering firms, industry, crime labs, and health facilities, or, with a few more credits, can complete an Associates Degree. At any one time there may be up to 60 students enrolled in the scheduled courses.

“A lot of our graduates go into the Silicon Valley area because of our proximity,” said Cathy Davis, Lab Manager. “We place students in a wide variety of other locations as well, from Southern California to Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New York, and Florida. We even had one go to work at Harvard and one went with a primary investigator to Europe.” They also come from all over the U.S., and some apply from countries as far away as Botswana after learning about the program on the college’s website.

In addition to carving career paths, some students add notable achievements to their credit. One of the graduates, Tom Deerinck, placed first in the Nikon Small World international contest for micrographs (light microscope) in 2002. A group of students were thrilled when their experiment for Space Lab Sciences was transported into outer space by the 1991 Columbia space shuttle.

In 2003, with funding from the State of California, the college built a dedicated 18,000 square foot facility for the electron microscopy program. What was formerly known as Stockton College has come a long way from the 1970s when the microscopy lab was housed in a Quonset hut. The facility now has 6 labs, 10 microscope rooms and a classroom equipped with both new Dell and Macintosh computers.

SJ Delta College has also recently acquired a new SEM to expand its capabilities. In June 2007, Cathy and instructor Frank Villalovoz will get their first opportunity to experiment with the new JEOL JSM-6390LV SEM. The flexibility of low vacuum chamber will allow for both material and biological samples to be studied. The program at SJ Delta College offers a concentration in biology, materials, or both.

During semester break this summer, JEOL service engineers will complete the installation of the new SEM and perform preventive maintenance on the five other JEOL microscopes including 3-100CX TEMs, JSM-6100 and JSM 6400F SEMs, both equipped with EDS systems. The Lab also has a FEI Focused Ion Beam, Atomic Force Microscope and a Hitachi TM1000 SEM. Most of their microscopes have been donated from various industries including: Chevron (San Ramon), Intel Corporation (Santa Clara), Concord Analysis (Los Angeles), IBM (Almaden Research Center) and Topometrix.

The 6100 is what the students start on. “It’s been a real workhorse for us with fifteen twenty, or thirty people using the microscope on a weekly basis every semester,” says Cathy.

“Usually it’s the students’ first experience with the SEM,” Frank explains. It helps to get hands-on experience in parallel with theory and the science and math classes required for the materials or biology concentrations. Students are also trained in TEM operation, light microscopy, sample preparation, and instrument maintenance.

They thoroughly learn the entire instrument without the shortcuts. They benefit from using older equipment in addition to the new models, because older technology requires manually adjusting and tuning with knobs instead of a simple mouse click. They take a photography class and learn to print the images as well as use the latest digital technology of the newer instruments for instant images that are easily shared online. With this thorough foundation and strong background in microscopy, they learn to fully incorporate the microscope as a tool for their research projects in class, and later as the SEM or TEM expert operator on the job.

Their Instructor and Lab Manager, who learned the same way, share the experience. Cathy and Frank are also graduates of SJ Delta College’s microscopy program themselves, and know first hand what it’s like to discover the field.

Cathy recalls, “The first time I saw an image on the SEM, that’s what hooked me. The TEM is cool in its own right, but with the SEM, a student can relate much more to what they’re looking at.” After graduation, she worked at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab as a Research Assistant preparing samples for the TEM until returning to the college as a Lab Manager.

As a student, Frank had transferred to a four-year college after completing courses at the community college. He was surprised to learn that the microscopy program had been launched shortly after he left. “One day one of the instructors had a microscope segment in my advanced microbiology class and mentioned the program at Delta College.” He returned and was a member of the first graduating class. He went on to work at UC San Francisco in cancer research and then worked at UC Berkeley before returning as a Lab Manager and eventually Instructor at Delta College.

“I tell students just about everything you have around you can be looked at with a microscope,” he says. “There is a continued demand for the skill to use a microscope properly.”

Cathy and Frank will share their EM enthusiasm with very young microscopists when, for the first time, they teach children. They are hosting a Kids’ College this summer for children ages 12 and up. The first session to learn about microscopy filled within the day, and the college had to offer a second session they report.

The program instructors, with the help of students, also give tours to local officials and high school students, and have even hosted a delegation from the HuaiHai Institute of Technology Department of Electronic Engineering in China. Even when they are teaching, they are always learning, Frank says. By inviting graduates back to give lectures, and by staying connected with the microscopy community, attending conferences, and inviting speakers to the classroom, they stay current with a wide range of applications. They are members of the Microscopy Society of America.

“I feel really fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in this field and this particular environment,” Cathy says, as she gets ready for another semester and a new crop of students who she will prepare to be amazed by the electron microscope.