Another Way of Looking at Things - Y Magazine
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College Updates

Another Way of Looking at Things

BYU engineers have given scientists a new way to observe living cells and understand how they work.

Ben L. Zhang and Jacey C. Morine
Undergraduate research assistants Ben L. Zhang, ’05, (right) and Jacey C. Morine, ’05, calibrate BYU’s new imaging instrument. Photo by Jaren Wilkey.

“We’re observing things using this instrument that you can’t see any other way,” says Stephen M. Schultz, ’92. “Whenever you provide a new way to look at something, it opens the doors for new research and understanding.”

The instrument is the work of BYU electrical and computer engineering associate professor Aaron R. Hawkins, assistant professors Travis Oliphant, ’95, and Stephen Schultz, and a team of students. Described in Applied Physics Letters in August, the instrument measures the natural differences in electrical resistance among the molecules in cells and translates them into a black-and-white image.

Future versions of the tool may allow scientists to see how different medicines and treatments affect living cells in real time. They may also make it easier to diagnose illnesses.

“One of the difficulties in diagnosing illness is having an image tell you something meaningful about what’s going on with injured or sick cells,” says Oliphant. “But if you could see that a cell was producing the wrong kind of protein, you could more easily determine what was going wrong.”

James F. Greenleaf, a professor of biophysics at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, says “the BYU instrument is a very important and novel method of imaging. It obtains information that may provide new insights into biomedical processes.”