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Blog At the Museum

Magnify your curiosity at SEM Saturday

SEM Saturdays are the newest way to explore at the Museum, giving guests the chance to take a close-up look at the world around them. For the first Saturday event, we were pleased to welcome back Dr. Holly Leddy, along with experts in all things small from the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF) at Pratt School of School of Engineering at Duke University, which is part of the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network. While we have light microscopes and digital microscopes at the museum, they’ve got nothing on SMIF’s portable Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)! The next opportunity to join SEM Saturday, is this Saturday, September 9.

A simple light microscope manipulates how light enters the eye using a curved convex lens. When light reflects off an object being viewed under the microscope and passes through the lens, it bends towards the eye. This makes the object look bigger than it actually is!

The face of a yellow jacket through a scanning electron microscope.

Scanning electron microscopy works by scanning a sample with beams of electrons. An electron can show us such tiny images because the electrons themselves are so small and have such tiny wavelengths. Meanwhile, photons (light particles) have wavelengths about a thousand times larger than an electron’s wavelengths! Imagine trying to paint a tiny picture with a gigantic brush! Like a fine, single-haired paintbrush, electrons’ tiny wavelengths are why the resolution of an electron microscope is much higher than that of an optical microscope.

Mexical ruellia pollen through the view of a scanning electron microscope.

Graduate students Winston Lindqwister and Morgan Heckman, undergraduate student Mia Woodruff, and three staff members, Emily Moreno-Hernandez, Lydia Parks, and Dr. Leddy brought a selection of microscopes for visitors to use on different specimen.

Along with the parts of a yellow jacket and grass and pollen, the SEM took a close look at some Blue Morpho butterfly and Atlas moth wings from the Butterfly House!


The wing of a Blue Morpho butterfly through a scanning electron microscope.


An Atlas Moth under a scanning electron microscope.

We asked visitors to suggest what they would like to see under a SEM so the SMIF team can bring them for the next SEM Saturday in just a few days from now! Join us in the Lab on the second floor between 10 am – 12 pm and 1 pm – 3 pm on Saturday, September 9 to see these marvelous microscopic materials, and many more!