Imparting a Lifetime of Microscopy Experience – American University’s Andrea Blake Brothers

Andrea Brothers, Microscopy Core & Instrument Coordinator, American University
Andrea Blake Brothers, Microscopy Core & Instrument Coordinator, American University
Lucky are the students who learn Transmission Electron Microscopy from an instructor whose experience spans the oldest to the newest technology, with a solid background in both materials and biological research. At American University, students use the TEM in their research projects with the help of the Microscopy Core & Instrument Coordinator Andrea Brothers. She has a lot of knowledge to impart about getting the best images and results.
As a teenager, Andrea was already on a path to her career as a professional Electron Microscopist. At 13, she received a very nice toy microscope from her little brother instead of the chemistry set she wanted for Christmas, but after seeing Volvox (algae) in pond water, she was hooked! In 12th grade, a teacher announced a $200 scholarship for The University of South Carolina. She applied for and won the Allied Chemical Summer Research Scholarship because of her interests in chemistry, biology, violin, and art, and, best of all, they placed her in an electron microscope laboratory that summer.
Her first experience using the Electron Microscope was that summer before becoming a Freshman at USC, where she used a JEOL 100B TEM.
“I didn’t know what I was in for, but they placed me there and had me sectioning and ‘scoping and I never looked back.” After a few years, she found herself teaching graduate students how to section and how to run the TEM. It only seemed logical to stay with the biology program and complete her B.S. degree.
Her research assistant work at USC was the ideal background for a new position as Research Microscopist at Georgetown University, working with Dr. George Chapman, the Biology Chairman. There she used the 1951 RCA EMU 2D TEM, and was more than up to the challenge when, in 1988, Dr. Chapman needed a perfect cross section through the feeding structure of a ciliated protozoan. More than 30 years later, that image earned her a “Special Award in TEM” announced in Microscopy Today’s Micrograph Competition.
Luck and skill were on Andrea’s side: “You know how, in basketball, you get that special feeling when the ball leaves your hands towards the net, and you just know that it’s going to go in…and then it does? That’s the same feeling I got when I tightened the block on the ultramicrotome when I made that cross section.” There are approximately 43,000 microtubule cross sections in one 2 x 2” glass plate. Georgetown University gave her the rights to the negative and printed image after digitization for the GU library archives, and it is included in the collection along with Dr. Chapman’s TEM’s spanning five decades.
Au rods, 100,000X.
Au rods, 100,000X.
From there, her TEM expertise served her well in various challenges outside of academia, from pharmaceutical research to drosophila brain serial-sectioning, and to failure analysis of semiconductor devices. Then in 2019 she returned to academia at American University where a new JEOL JEM-2100Plus TEM had recently been installed, which was supported through an MRI grant from the NSF. Now she is applying her experience to a new generation of TEM and teaching a new generation of students.
Both materials and biology programs use the 2100, a LaB6 S/TEM that is a popular choice for universities for its flexibility. With Andrea’s knowledge, “Students are coached about sample prep, negative/positive staining for cellulose samples, and metallo-nanoparticles direct observation preps,” she says. Using the TEM, she demonstrates to a few students at a time, then lets them “drive” when ready.
Dr. Shouzhong Zou, a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry, is one of the professors who utilizes the TEM in his program. “Most of the students use TEM to characterize metallic nanoparticles, mainly gold nanoparticles. They use TEM to measure the size, distribution, and shape of these particles.” Dr. Douglas Fox, another Chemistry faculty member, characterizes carbohydrate nanomaterials using the instrument. “Research Assistant Professor Whirang Cho has learned how to operate the TEM under Andrea’s tutelage to produce high quality images of cellulose and chitin nanoparticles, which we used in several manuscripts over the past four years. This has been a great addition not available in many predominantly undergraduate departments.” Other faculty members utilize the TEM & SEM for student research to image a wide variety of samples: Dr. Alex Zestos, Dr. Matt Hartings, Dr. Chris Tudge, Dr. Dan Fong, Dr. Barbara Balestra, Dr. Vikki Connaughton, Dr. Egis Zilinskas, and Dr. Nate Harshman, to name a few. Sample subjects include carbon electrodes, metallo-gels, crustaceans, amphipods, microplastics, zebrafish retina, forensic glitter and fibers, and class demonstrations, respectively.
In addition to being used for various student projects, the 2100Plus is a resource for local universities (Georgetown University, Catholic University of America, and George Mason University) whose research includes various metallic nanoparticles, osteoblasts grown on artificial scaffolding for the study of calcium localization, and breast cancer exosome characterization for therapeutic treatment research.
SEM image of Cicada – Spring 2021
SEM image of Cicada – Spring 2021.
Additionally, Andrea loves to introduce SEM to the student researchers. The IT-100 model tungsten SEM “is a great teaching ‘scope and is used often. Usually, the SEM is the introduction microscope to prepare to teach them the more complicated TEM.” Faculty often ask their undergraduate and graduate researchers to acquire their own images using this instrument. To further advance their knowledge, she is planning an ultramicrotomy workshop to let cytology students learn biological ultrastructure TEM techniques.
In a university environment with multiple users, the “all-JEOL” system that features a JEOL camera and EDS makes it easier for service as well. “It’s a one-stop-shop for when things need attention. One phone call, text, or email does everything,” Andrea says.
Read more about microscopy at American University
  • Benefits of Microscopy for the Use of Research Experimentation
  • Chemistry Research Facilities Gallery
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