Powerful imaging equipment typically found at major research institutions will soon be part of the  DePauw University campus. The school is purchasing a handful of cutting-edge light and electron microscopes; previously, students had to travel to Indiana University to use such instruments. The Buehler Family Foundation, led by 1978 DePauw graduate A.C. Buehler III, provided half-a-million dollars to purchase the high-tech equipment that’s expected take research to the next level at the small liberal arts university.

DePauw Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Pascal Lafontant says the university has one basic research-grade microscope, which is typical of a small liberal arts institution. But the grant will allow the school to have several powerful instruments, including two cutting-edge microscopes that “most other schools like DePauw don’t have.”

While the equipment is typical at major research institutions, Lafontant believes DePauw’s small size will provide students more hands-on time with the tools, compared to large campuses.

“Student experience tends to be very good at smaller schools with these resources,” says Lafontant. “If you’re at a big school, it’s unlikely that you get to use [the microscopes] as an undergrad; you have to be a postdoc to have access to those. Because we have them here, where we only have undergrads, the undergrad can be trained and use the instruments.”  

The instruments will comprise the new Buehler Biomedical Imaging Center inside the F.W. Olin Biological Sciences Building, adding momentum to the university’s growing research infrastructure. The university says the imaging center will enhance undergraduate research, which already aims to equip students for success in graduate school and medical programs.

DePauw leaders believe the facility will enhance recruitment. Lafontant says prospective students will realize they can do research rather than observe it, and faculty will recognize higher potential for research funding.

“We have been successful publishing primary work, but I think when you’re a small school and apply for a grant, the people reviewing it think, ‘You can’t do that because you don’t have the instruments,’” says Lafontant, who is also the center's principal investigator. “We’re going to be more competitive in terms of getting more grants, because we’ll have the kind of instruments that other big schools have, and we can show that we can do the work ourselves.”

Currently, DePauw students conduct independent research with faculty, some of whom have grants from the National Institutes of Health. But Lafontant says students or investigators who wanted to “go to the next level” of research had to drive to IU Bloomington or collaborate with other institutions.

“More [DePauw] students will be able to take part and access those kinds of instruments; now, we can actually do it in-house with the sort of instruments we’re going to have,” says Lafontant. “It will allow us to feature our research a little bit better. I think a lot of people tend to be unaware that there’s actually good research going on at smaller schools.”

The imaging center will have a special focus on regeneration biology, the biology of inflammation, wound healing and repair and the neuroscience of behavior and addiction—areas in which DePauw already has expertise. The university is ordering the instruments now and expects at least part of the center to be functional by January.

“The new opportunities in funding for research, getting to do the work in-house and seeing students really enthusiastic about learning and using the new instruments,” says Lafontant, “that gets us even more excited.”