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Dr. Larson gets new lab for microscopy

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Dr. Bjorg Larson is a new physics professor at Drew University. During this school year, her first year teaching at Drew, she taught Introductory Physics I and II, General Physics Lab I and II and the environmental science course Energy and Environment. A new physics lab is currently being renovated for Larson’s research on microscopy, which is the field of using microscopes to view samples and objects that cannot be seen with the unaided eye. The laboratory will be open in a few weeks, and Larson will begin working there during the fall.

According to Larson, physics appealed to her because of its close connection to aspects of the real world. She said,  “I went into physics initially because I was fascinated by how I could come up with these mathematical formulas that would actually describe things in real world situations. That was incredible to me.” Larson also accredits her draw to being a professor to her enjoyment working with students. “I like doing research projects and I also like teaching. I have a lot of fun with it.” While Larson specializes in optics, specifically microscopy, she most recently has done confocal microscopy, which demands her to “design and build instruments for applications most recently in skin and other research tissues.”

Confocal microscopy, for the unfamiliar, is an imaging technique used to increase the resolution, or the ability of an imaging system to resolve both detail and contrast, or difference in color that makes an object distinguishable, of a digital image taken through a microscope. Larson’s research lab will be centered around these confocal microscopes and their applications to human tissues. She said, “In my lab, I am going to design and build confocal microscopes pretty much from scratch. I will be doing the optics, electronics and all the programming.”

Regarding the application of these microscopes, Larson stated, “Applications of these microscopes are in cancer, specifically early detection and surgical margins.” Larson’s work will allow surgeons to use the microscope directly on removed tissue and will determine if they have gotten most or all the cancer out of the patient. “Currently, there are some commercial versions of this microscope available and approved for use in hospitals,” Larson said, “but what I’m working on is the next generation of technology available now.”

The idea of image formation drew Larson to the general microscopy field. Concerning her involvement in research that applies microscopy to cancer, she said, “I knew someone who was working in it and I thought it sounded incredible.” A biopsy is a similar procedure requiring this level of attention, where a doctor removes a piece of flesh and places it in a fixation solution, slices it very thinly, stains it with hematoxylin and eosin – blue and pink dyes – and then looks at it under a standard microscope: “the type that has essentially been around for four hundred years,” according to Larson.

Larson classified this process of cutting and analyzing tissues as “histology,” which has been the fashion in medicine for one hundred years. She is excited at the thought that maybe the technology to improve it lies in the near future, to image the cells in real time, both on the patient and on the fresh tissue. “We should be able to do this, we should be able to do this on our cell phones!” she exclaimed. “It is really incredible to think of how we can analyze tissues with faster and better technology.”

Larson is looking to involve a variety of students in her research. “In the initial building of the microscopes, physics majors will be more interested in the work because it will be centered around physics. However, once we have an instrument running, there may be biology, chemistry or environmental science students interested in looking at certain samples. They can do application type projects in my lab.” Larson looks forward to accepting students to help set up the lab in the fall and spring semesters of this upcoming school year. Additionally, she is looking for student help in the lab the following summer.

Ultimately, Larson affirmed that she is excited to have a lab and start doing research at Drew University.