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Harker Heights Evening Star
Harker Heights Evening Star

A&M-Central Texas Showcases Scanning Electron Microscope

Special to the HHES

Killeen – Quick. What does an Scanning Electron Microsope look like?

Is it bigger than a bread box? Is it 2001: A Space Odyssey or a Ghostbusters gadget? Does it stalk its prey like the giant metal monolithic creatures in War of the Worlds?

As the imagination leaps from one visual to another, the realm of possibilities seem endless. And while the SEM itself looks like a xerox machine on steroids, the images it produces tantalizes the scientific imagination.

Dr. Aida Torabi, Post Doctoral Research Associate in the A&M-Central Texas Office of Research knows the answer to these, and many other, questions – like what the eye of an aphid really looks like when it is enlarged thousands of times.

Holding up  her pinky finger as if to demonstrate original size, she explains,“An aphid is very small. About the size of an extremely small seed. So its eyes are even smaller. The electron scanning microscope takes that aphid – that tiny thing – and allows us to see it precisely and in great detail.”

Pointing to a digital photograph of the aphid’s eye, her dark eyes alight with wonder. The layperson’s eyes, however, struggle to make sense of the unfamiliar, seeing what could only be charitably described as a rough hewn, multi-dimensional, circular honeycomb with a toothpick protruding from the middle.

“It’s okay,” she laughs. “There were children in here a few weeks ago. They thought they were looking at a monster. But it was really a flower. Sometimes what a thing looks like when we use our eyes looks extraordinarily different when we use the eyes of the SEM.”

Delivered to A&M-Central Texas earlier this spring, and part of a $1.5M grant funded by Texas A&M University System’s Chancellor’s Research Initiative, the SEM was an investment in program development aimed at solar research and, if bragging rights matter, it is reportedly newer than the comparable model in use on the College Station campus.

Taking full advantage of its functionality, Torabi points tenderly to a single solar cell one-third the size of a postage stamp and describes how the SEM improves the research process by enlarging miniscule objects.

“When we look at this solar cell, we can examine its functionality in a way not possible with the naked eye,” she explains. “We can use that information to improve how solar cells work.”

On Thursday, July 20,  at The Third Thursday Mixer, A&M-Central Texas and Central Texas College shared the stage in the Warrior Hall Multipurpose Room, featuring projects which reflect their common interest in STEM. Tours to the ESM laboratory were available to those in attendance.

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