Where can my 5-year-old see an electron microscope in Seattle?
November 21, 2019 8:40 PM   Subscribe

I have a curious five-year-old. She plans to ask Santa for an electron microscope. He’s really, really not gonna bring one - what’s the next best thing?

My kid wants to know how all things work. She was sick the other day, which led to learning about viruses, which led to asking to see pictures of viruses, which led to my very simplified description of what an electron microscope does, which led to her deciding to ask Santa for one. (“It doesn’t matter if it’s expensive, the elves can MAKE me one!”)

Reader, the elves are not going to make my child an electron microscope.

Can anyone think of a place in the Seattle area where I could take her to see an electron microscope do its thing? Is there some public institution that lets preschoolers interact with very expensive machines? Do any of you have a generous friend who works in a well-appointed lab and likes (cautious, respectful) little kids? Are YOU the generous person we need? Give me your ideas, it’ll make this budding scientist’s day. Thanks.
posted by centrifugal to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This pocket microscope is finicky, but can be pretty amazing on stuff like bug skeletons and feathers. And you can toss it into a backback and take it to school.
posted by dws at 8:54 PM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not to threadsit! But Santa is totally going to bring her a regular microscope. I’m really looking for a place she can see the fancy one in addition to that. Ok, going away now.
posted by centrifugal at 8:57 PM on November 21, 2019

5 is a little young.

The old (1977) 'Powers of Ten' video has some electron microscopy pictures - but the important part is understanding just how small viruses are (and just how big the universe is).

I've seen other demonstrations of the concept of 'powers of ten' but can't find them right now.

I used to have access to fluorescent microscopes and fluorescent confocal microscopes, and have used my University's electron microscope. The big thing about electron microscopy is that you have to treat the sample (usually by gold plating it) before you bounce electrons off of it.

My thing was "glowing neurons" - we'd harvest neurons from mouse embryos and grow then on glass coverslips under different conditions/ treatments/ from different genetic sources/ etc, then "stain" them with different antibodies conjugated to different colours of fluorophores. I'd look at things like how much of a particular receptor is being expressed - and how much makes it to the surface, and where. Also did time-lapse fluorescent microscopy using quantum dots (usually antibody staining if you flood the sample with antibody and wash the excess away, with quantum dots, you use very little antibody but it's attached to a giant fluorophore so you can track an individual cell surface receptor) and see individual receptors move around a neuron and how they merge with and wander away from clusters of receptors at synapses.

Microscopes nowadays usually show the image on a big computer screen (using the eyepiece is mostly just to roughly find a "field" - and especially at higher magnifications, fine-tuning the field used to use very very expensive gears and cams, but now are mostly computer assisted - and to focus via visible light since fluorescence will bleach the fluorophores (in fluorescent microscopy, the sample is treated - in my field, primarily with antibodies linked to different coloured fluorophores).

So, if you have academic friends with access to microscopy, demo-ing it isn't a big deal. But probably no hands on.

If your kiddo 'gets' powers of ten, their minds might be blown by atomic force microscopy.

Viruses and virus shapes are fascinating, but I'm not confident that I could explain clades and genetics and the nuances of sequence-based protein folding to the pre-school level. I've done lots of highschool level molecular biology demos/ labs, though.


Depends on your budget and creativity, but some USB (non-fluorescent) visible light microscopes aren't complete garbage. 200-250X is probably the lowest maximum magnification you'll want. To get to 1000x you'll typically want to do oil immersion (a drop of oil on the coverslip - the sample prepared under the coverslip should be in a medium with a diffraction index similar tot he coverslip, the oil is also the same diffraction index of the coverslip so you don't get abberations when the light passes through the slide, sample, coverslip - then encounters air, with a different diffraction index - then again when it passes through the lens.

There are "kits" that are sold for edutainment purposes. Depending on the power of the microscope and your resources, I might be able to suggest demonstrations.
posted by porpoise at 9:02 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Forgot to add - for visible light microscopes, there is a plethora of different visible light "stains" in different colours, for different samples.

At 250x (no staining required), you can see individual red blood cells, white blood cells (a little harder to "purify"/"concentrate") are pretty cool-looking. 400x or 500x is better.

... at 400-500x, fresh semen is pretty fascinating, but 1000x really shines...

Most bacteria and filementous fungi will be discernable at 250x, too, but not super duper interesting. 500x or 1000x is much better. But at 250x, you can distinguish bacteria from blood cells if you're looking at an sample from an infected wound, especially if the bacteria is motile. Without concentrating white blood cells, this will be extraordinarily rare, but at 400x, I've seen white blood cells split (cell division) and have seen (probably a macrophage) one gobble up a free-swimming bacteria.

If you're worried about microbes, just use a fresh dilution of 1:10 bleach afterwards. A super easy thing is to take a q-tip, wet the tip, swab some produce/ food that has gone bad (swab the fuzzy/ slimy patch for one slide, swab a non-bad other part for the "control" slide and compare!), dab it on a slide, put a coverslip on it. Afterwards, drop the entire thing into a large glass of 1:10 bleach.

Dirt is actually fascinating to look at under magnification. Try different kinds of dirt from different locations. Wet a q-tip and pick up some collected dirt and drop it on a slide (like, a droplet of water with dirt), and put a coverslip on top.

Sometimes in a fresh dirt preparation, you'll see someting "zoom" by - it's probably a motile actinomycete spore. Cute buggers.

I can't remember how fine of a mesh net is required, but zooplankton from streams/ ponds are fun especially since they swim around. Tons of different shapes and sizes. Algae isn't too boring.

Lint and household dust can be interesting, too.

In undergrad, I had access to a old-school ~1940s visible light microscope and it had an eyepiece attachment so you could "trace" what you were seeing with your left eye while using your right eye simultaneously looking at a piece of paper. With a USB scope, that's kind of irrelevant, but keeping a notebook with descriptions of the sample (when it was taken, where it was taken, etc.) to associate with the filenames of any images that you capture is good to encourage.

At 100x-250x, pre-prepared stained "slices" of different plants is fun.
posted by porpoise at 9:29 PM on November 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

I was lucky enough to grow up near three major science centers, and I know that going to these places when I was a kid made deep impressions and shaped my interests forever. This means you rule!

University of Washington has one for any registered student to use that would be perfect for this, since it is not-for-research and presumably there for fun. There is a training course to use it, but I bet you could post something on a Science department bulletin board, or Craigslist Gigs, looking for someone who has been through the training to give you and your kid a demonstration. The demonstrator might be hit and miss as far as talk and information goes, so prepare yourself to be self-guided.

Alternatively, call your City Councilperson, Alderperson, or whatever flavor of neighborhood representative Seattle uses, and ask them. They want your vote, they'll find out! Assuming you live in Seattle, of course, but if you aren't you can probably still call your municipal representative for wherever you do live. Regional science centers and children's museums are pretty common these days.

And hey, googling "Seattle Science Center" brings something up! They look modern and consumed with the idea of "science productions" rather than Basic Science experiences, but they would also be a good place to call and ask for alternatives (tell them of course you're going to visit, but you're only in town for a few days from Timbuktu and want to make the most of it and do they have any suggestions).
posted by rhizome at 9:30 PM on November 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

I know someone in Seattle who has restored two SEMs to working condition and one of them is for sale. They’re in Georgetown. I don’t know if the space’s business insurance is going to be more okay with a 5 year old than the UW, but if the UW doesn’t pan out, I’ll get you his email.
posted by clew at 9:47 PM on November 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

(I'm not sure if this is helpful, but in the Science Museum in London UK there is a display of a real but deactivated SEM with a TV in place of the output display showing a recorded clip of a few different things as if they were being scanned. Visiting a museum with a display like that might be a better experience than trying to prepare a sample for use in a working SEM. I don't know if there are any museums near you like that.)
posted by richb at 3:31 AM on November 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Hitachi High-Tech Science Outreach Program lends tabletop SEMs to schools and science centers/museums, which are more likely to allow a 5-yo than research labs. I don't see any Seattle sites listed as active right now, but it might be worth contacting them to see if any are planned.
posted by nonane at 4:50 AM on November 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

I adore this question. I’m on the wrong coast, but my local academic nanofab facility has a benchtop SEM that they bring to outreach events, where they show kids bugs and computer chips for the most part. So I don’t think that what you’re asking for is at all unreasonable. If your local science museum or the UW have outreach events featuring nanotechnology, electronics, microscopy, materials science, or maybe geology, those would be the likeliest hits for folks that are likely to bring that kind of thing, or who would have good contacts for making such a thing happen.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:06 AM on November 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

tchemgrrl, who makes your outreach-friendly benchtop SEM? The Seattle rep for the manufacturer may know if someone out there has one they use for similar purposes.
posted by rockindata at 6:50 AM on November 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

I promise you that if you contact scientists working with SEM and explain that your 5-year-old daughter wants to see one working, someone will help you.

A few places to check: e-mail the lab team lead (her contact information is on the page) in the Materials Science and Engineering undergrad lab. The UW Biology Imaging Facility may be an option - they have demos and things scheduled. The Notrhwest Nanotechnology Infrastructure also has an SEM. The UW Bothell SEM facility explicitly says they want to make it available for outreach activities - contact for their faculty is also on that page. For these people, I would just ask if anyone has time booked on the SEM anytime soon and, if so, whether your daughter would be able to watch for a little while. This guy is mentioned as a person who is excited about SEM outreach; he may also be worth contacting.

If none of these people are helpful, I'd also try reaching out to the Society of Women Engineers (PNW chapter) and the UW chapter of Women in Science and Engineering. I would really be shocked if someone won't make this happen for you. Outreach is a big deal, especially for women who are involved in SWE and WISE, and I would guess that there's a microscopy grad student out there who would be thrilled to share how awesome her research and tools are with a curious 5-year-old.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:53 AM on November 22, 2019 [10 favorites]

The highlight of my family's spring break trip to San Francisco when I was a kid was getting to visit my mom's friend's SEM lab in Berkeley. I have emailed her to ask if her friend has any contacts in Seattle.
posted by coppermoss at 3:03 PM on November 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, the Evergreen State College has an SEM and at the bottom of this page there is contact information. Evergreen might be more amenable because of its different approach to higher education.
posted by Altomentis at 8:43 PM on November 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

FYI, all the labs I’ve worked for have a 12 years old minimum visitor age for safety reasons, university policy. This was also the rule at my dad’s job at a private corporation. Finding an outreach/museum program sounds like a better bet than contacting random labs, folks may want to help but be limited in what they can do.
posted by momus_window at 12:50 PM on November 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

When I was taking a SE microscopy class at Portland State University, my professor often talked about how much he enjoyed the electron microscope outreach work he did with classrooms of younger kids. They would do it remote, where he'd call in to the classroom and they'd just mirror his computer screen so they could see the images as he explored a bee or a piece of macaroni or whatever (he always had a couple of favorite go-to items prepped that had the best "wow-factor").

Not sure what Portland State's policies would be for allowing kids in the room with the microscope, but their center is set up so that the various microscopes are in windowed rooms with closed doors, so a kid could easily walk down the hallway and look in the window, but not go in. SEM time is expensive in college student terms, so usually researchers are trying to make the most of the time they have available, and distractions are unwelcome. The exceptions could be when someone is doing some sort of training on learning to use the microscope, or when the microscope is not in use.

Not that I'm suggesting Portland State is a convenient location for you, just guessing that other colleges may handle things similarly! And- maybe drop Rick (email address in "my professor" link) to see what ideas he might have, or programs similar to what he does that might be happening near you.
posted by Secretariat at 11:16 AM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

These answers are wonderful - thank you for your love and care for tiny nerds! We’re members of the Pacific Science Center, and I’m also affiliate faculty at UW, so I think I’m going to be able to make a SEM experience happen! If those don’t pan out I’m absolutely interested in following up with your friend, clew, and also UW’s WISE chapter, and others who answered too. Thank you, thank you.
posted by centrifugal at 9:22 PM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Good luck! I’d love to hear how it goes!
posted by Secretariat at 12:40 PM on November 27, 2019

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