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Some Thoughts on Recreational / Amateur Microscopy (Part 2)

Found in: Editorial, Microscopy Basics

Today, I’d like to continue my thoughts on microscopy as a hobby.

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I tried to brainstorm a list of strengths and opportunities as well as areas of improvements. In a previous article I already mentioned that (in my personal view), recreational microscopy as not as well established as other recreational sciences. In particular, I compared amateur microscopy with amateur astronomy, which seems to be enjoy a much stronger foundation. In this post I want to explore some of the strengths and weaknesses of microscopy as a hobby (and encourage anyone to comment).

Strengths and opportunities of microscopy

  • School labs: Many biology labs of schools already possess microscopes. How many schools, in comparison, possess telescopes? Microscopes are more accessible to students. The question is now what should be done to foster and retain the interest of the students?
  • Comparatively low cost: Reasonable microscopes can be bought for a quite reasonable price. The financial entry barrier into recreational microscopy is not high.
  • Location, weather and time independence: There is no need for a clear sky and microscopic specimens can be observed around the clock.
  • Many samples: A nearly unlimited number of samples that can be observed. Specimen preparation can be very simple ranging to quite complex. This offers many opportunities for the hobbyist.
  • Photography: The observations can be documented using cameras and shared over the Internet. While photography can also be done in astronomy, the equipment costs and experience required can be much higher.

Areas of improvement

  • Lack of awareness of stereo microscopes: Many beginning microscopists will think of compound microscopes when they think of a microscope. Stereo microscopes pose an even lower entry-barrier, especially for children. Stereo microscopes are often cheaper and elaborate sample preparation is not necessary.
  • Problems of discoveries: An amateur astronomer who discovers a new comet (or other astronomical event) will receive credit for this discovery. Microscopy alone is rarely sufficient to justify the new discovery of a species. Genetic and biochemical tests are also necessary and this is often outside the scope of an amateur. For this reason, I think that amateur microscopy somewhat lacks competitiveness. Many hobbies are supported by the fact that people are able to “build up” something, collect awards and are able to participate in competitions. While this competitive aspect may not be in everyone’s interest, I think that competitiveness can still carry forward and support a hobby.
  • Possible negative associations: Microscopy may be negatively associated with germs and pathogens. Microscopes may have the “hospital taste” attached to them.
  • Amateur microscope making and technical tinkering: There are not many possibilities to “tune” a microscope. Microscopy is therefore mostly an observing activity, of using a ready-made technical device. Flying model airplanes, for example, contains both aspects the technical construction and then the flying of the model. Also amateur telescope making is able to combine both aspects. In microscopy it is possible to prepare specimens, but this activity is largely non-technical and routine.
  • Toxic chemicals: many substances used for specimen preparation are toxic, expensive, or sold only to qualified laboratories. There is a need for safe microscopic methods.

What (Biology) teachers need

  • Student-proof methods: Many specimen preparation techniques use methods and chemicals that are not suitable for classroom use. The reagents may be toxic, the methods too complex or time-consuming, or they may require sophisticated equipment. How should a teacher teach a class of 20+ students to use use a microtome, if there are only 1 or 2 of these available? What about the associated dangers? Additionally, some methods may require substantial experience and trial-and-error until a satisfactory specimen is obtained for observation. This time is often simply not available in schools. Student motivation may also be at risk, if a certain preparatory step has to be repeated several times until a satisfactory result is obtained. Being a teacher myself, I found it easiest to work with ready made permanent slides.
  • Observation and project ideas: Teachers need straight-forward observation ideas. One reason why the microscopy of onion cells (and onion cell plasmolysis) is so popular in schools is, that the preparation is simple, relatively safe and can be completed and observed within one class period. Teachers need more observation ideas.
  • Integration into the curriculum: Practical microscopy work must/should fit into the Biology curriculum. What specimens should/could be observed for the curriculum topic digestion? For the topic nervous system? Some commercial permanent slide sets for schools already contain specimens from a variety of different sources, so that it becomes easier to find appropriate specimens for the different curriculum topics.

What advanced recreational microscopists need

  • Validation methods and integration into mainstream research science: An amateur astronomer, who discovers an asteroid can easily validate the discovery against a database and then receives credit for the discovery. What should an amateur microscopist do with his or her observations? Microscopic images are rarely enough to justify the discovery of a new species Amateur astonomers can hunt for supernovae in distant galaxies and search for near-earth asteroids. In my opinion (please correct me), amateur microscopists do not seem to be integrated into mainstream research science to the same extent. A possible reason could be that modem biological research does not rely as much on the more qualitative observations as it once used to. There was a shift towards molecular and biochemical analyses in the bio sciences.
  • Competitiveness: To some extent this already exists in micrograph competitions. While competitions are not something for everyone, some amateur microscopists may still be motivated by matching their skills with others. At this point, I do want to recommend Nikon Small World, which is a step into the right direction.

What beginning recreational microscopists need

  • Information: Buying a new microscope is not easy, if one does not know what to look out for. Beginners need accessible and non-technical information. Regrettably there are not many amateur microscopy magazines around that contain advertisements for suitable microscopes or other general information for beginners.
  • Source of reagents: Stains and other chemicals may need to be obtained from chemical supply companies. These companies often do not target amateurs and may refuse to send these substances to private individuals.
  • Networks and clubs: In many areas it seems to be easier to find an astronomy club compared to microscopy clubs. I wonder why considering the fact that a decent telescope can cost substantially more than a microscope.

    Do you have any suggestions? Write a comment!

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