Monday, February 13, 2017

UIS researchers combine science and art to capture images of some of the world’s smallest organisms

Researchers at the University of Illinois Springfield are using a new method of digital photography to help us view microorganisms on a larger scale.

The technique, called focus stacking, uses computer software to combine multiple photographs taken at different focus distances. The result is a single picture with greater sharpness or depth of field throughout the image.

The microbial images were captured using high resolution Olympus microscope cameras and focus stacked with the Zerene Focus software program.

“The science-art aspect is simply excellent,” said UIS Biology Professor Michael Lemke. “We hoped to create an experience that would stimulate your imagination.”

Lemke joined forces with Mike Miller, UIS associate professor of art, and his brother Tom Lemke, a photographer, to help produce the images. A number of UIS undergraduate students including Jack Zinnen, Christina Hanula and Alex Cross also assisted with the project.

So far, the team has photographed a number of insects, flowers, algae and zooplankton. However, they hope to use the technique to capture images of even smaller objects in the future.

“The world of protozoa, which range in size from 10 to 500 micrometers, are my next challenge,” said Lemke. “It is a question of getting the light intensity, lighting angle, the absolute non-movement of the specimen all to come together.”

In December 2016, the team was asked to present their scientific artwork at the Saint Louis Science Center with the help of Keith Miller, a UIS emeritus professor and current professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

During the exhibition, they showed off high resolution “flat” printouts of the images they captured and 3D models of the focus stacked images. Visitors also got the chance to use a microscope to capture their own images, which they could print and take home.

“Seeing how the public responded at the Science Center helps me as a scientist to observe more closely and think more deeply about what is an image,” said Lemke.

Lemke also plans to use the images in the classroom to help his students better understand microorganisms. He believes the images will help enhance the student’s learning experience.

“It helps me as teacher to better communicate through image (i.e., effective nonverbal teaching),” he said. “I wish to combine the two aspects (showing the public and teaching through images) in a magazine article, which I hope to produce during my sabbatical.”

The focus stacking project was made possible by a 2001 National Science Foundation Grant, funds from the UIS Therkildsen Field Station at Emiquon and a grant from the UIS College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

For more information, contact Michael Lemke, UIS biology professor, at 217/206-7339 or

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