“It can’t be done” isn’t in the Niner Engineer playbook
Dr. Sarah Stellwagen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences within the College of Science, had an issue: the microscopic spiderwebs that she researches are best studied in their native environment – or at least under the right conditions, like temperature and humidity. But it was not easy to get good readings with her microscope in the lab, which is often stuck around 70°F with humidity that can fluctuate dramatically depending on the weather. Transporting spiders from their home abroad back to an environmentally sealed, climate-controlled lab in America was not an option – it felt like an insurmountable roadblock to the researcher.
Stellwagen was home one evening explaining these challenges to her husband, Dr. Artur Wolek, who happens to be an Assistant Professor and researcher across campus in the William States Lee College of Engineering. Wolek suggested she connect with two fellow Niner Engineers in his own network: Joe Dalton, Lab Manager, and Brian Dutterer, Technology Applications Manager. “They love to tackle problems, design ideas, and build solutions,” he explained.
Sarah connected with the pair and, one year later, she was studying exotic spider silks – collecting data using their native environmental conditions. This is because Dalton and Dutterer collaborated to develop and build a customized climate-controlled, sealed-environment microscope chamber the size of a tissue box. She could now regulate temperature and humidity to mimic the natural habitat of any species, allowing accurate data collection that reflects the true material properties of spider silks.
The mobile lab, the only one like it in the world, can also be transported and used elsewhere. “The microscope can be supported by a table – any table – even one at a remote basecamp in the middle of South America,” said Dalton. “Unpack the microscope, turn on the power (often from a mobile generator), and for specimens that cannot be taken back to Charlotte, Sarah has her own environmentally accurate lab. She adjusts the chamber’s internal temp and humidity to mimic the natural surroundings.”
But can a mobile lab offer the integrity and accuracy of her Charlotte lab? “The chamber includes something highly important called an integrated force transducer,” explained Dalton. “It allows Sarah to take very tiny, very sensitive measurements and increases the reliability and consistency between measurements, while also increasing repeatability.“
Dalton and Dutterer’s innovation allows Stellwagen to take the spider to her lab or take her lab to the spider, allowing a uniquely flexible microscopy system. The Niner Engineer pair of Dalton and Dutterer agreed on their assessment of the project. “We love it when we hear it can’t be done – that just makes it a challenge for us!”