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Freeze frame: Scientists use new electron microscope to explore the mysteries of life

November 16, 2021

In a winding corridor behind a loading dock in the basement of Arizona State University's Schwada building, a group of ASU scientists are meeting in a lab, deeply focused, exploring the mysteries of life. 

Tucked in the basement in the heart of the Tempe campus is the only microscope of its kind in Arizona, ASU's Titan Krios, a dedicated cryogenic transmission electron microscope (or cryo-EM) that uses flash-frozen samples to explore the complexities of cellular life. 

Associate Research Scientist Dewight Williams is the maestro behind the operations, serving as a collaborator to all who want to solve burning biological questions. He described the project’s mission as solving “the assembly states of cellular life ... that create cells that can move and crawl and sense and do all this amazing stuff we consider life.” By revealing the structures of the true building blocks of organisms — proteins — the lab opens up new vistas of discovery. 

One of ASU’s best kept secrets is kept in the basement for a reason: to keep a controlled and stable environment for the best possible microscopic imagery. The floor is made of a 4-foot-deep slab of steel-reinforced concrete in order to prevent the slightest seismic vibration that could corrupt the images. As the scientific director of the microscope, Williams noted that “to understand how biology works, you understand how the atoms are arranged ... it’s all molecules interacting with molecules. So if you can understand the structure of those molecules, probable interactions and how they do what they do ... that requires high-resolution information.”

Most of the scope functions are automated, thus allowing the scientists to multitask while the scope takes as many as 5,000 images in a given day at a resolution of 1.4 angstroms (an angstrom is the width of the smallest element, hydrogen). Scientists need only prepare samples, load the tray and occasionally realign the lenses. 

The data is collected by flooding the sample with a 300,000-volt electron beam and creating a small probe that collects reflected light like a TV image composed of individual pixels. By capturing images of proteins from various angles, they can develop a 3D image of its structural makeup. 

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Abhishek Singaroy

Faculty from a wide range of universities and fields have requested time with the cryo-EM to help build a new picture of the structures of cellular life at work. By solving one protein structure at a time, they are building, protein brick by brick, a new picture of the structures of cellular life at work.

The cryo-EM microscope continues to yield new information and is currently part of Assistant Professor Abhishek Singharoy’s project to uncover the cellular process associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection. 

His experience in molecular dynamics and kinetic modeling have propelled him to explore the prominent topic. He hopes to uncover the underlying mechanisms that make up the virus. 

ASU professor Po Lin Chiu

Po-Lin Chiu

ASU Assistant Professor Po-Lin Chiu is a biophysicist and frequent user of the machine. His lab utilizes the machine for examining the impact of various proteins on brain health, allowing Chiu to search for signs of neurodegeneration. 

The high atomic resolution of the microscope allows scientists such as Chiu to observe individual molecules and their target compounds. 

ASU alum and Associate Professor Brent Nannenga is an avid user as well. He uses diffraction and imaging techniques to explore the function of biosystems through structure. Nannenga admits that the allure of the scope and collaborations inspired him to join the university faculty, where he proceeded to work as a colleague to his previous mentor.

He noted that the microscope has shaped his career, saying, “I use the cryo-EM in almost every project. (Without it) my research wouldn’t be what it is. It’s pretty central to everything I do.”

The project’s development was heavily influenced by the lifetime achievements of ASU Professor John Spence. Having served on faculty at the university for 40-plus years before his untimely passing, his influence can be found all over his department as well as others. 

He was a pioneer in the development of crystallography bioimaging after aiding in the development of the BioXFEL laser. More locally, he brought his expertise back to ASU by developing the compact iteration, CXFEL, being constructed under the Biodesign C building. 

Spence’s fingerprints are still on the project and aiding his peers. Before his passing, Spence nominated Nannenga for the Burton Medal for Microscopy Society in 2020, an award that Spence himself had won in the early '80s. As the CXFEL nears its premiere, the team has mourned his loss but vowed to carry on the spirit of his unbridled enthusiasm for science and the contributions he has made to the field. They hope to continue to aid discoveries in medicine, drug design and renewable energy. 

When looking toward the future, Nannenga said, “we're trying to figure out ways to upgrade and bring it into the next generation of microscopes.”

Top photo: ASU scientists, including Brent Nannenga (pictured), are using the only microscope of its kind in Arizona, the Titan Krios, a dedicated cryogenic transmission electron microscope (or cryo-EM) that uses flash-frozen samples to reveal the complexities of cellular life.

Hannah Weisman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Marketing and Communications


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Hip-hop artist Common shares how imagination fueled his journey to success

Hip-hop artist Common tells ASU audience that a vision board helped his success.
November 16, 2021

Oscar-winning rapper urges students to embrace discovery in lecture held by ASU's Barrett, The Honors College

The hip-hop artist and actor Common knew at age 12 that he wanted to be a rapper, so he cultivated a strong sense of imagination and belief in himself that eventually led to stardom, including an Academy Award for best original song.

Common, whose real name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn, gave the 2021 Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture on Monday, sponsored by Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.

He described how harnessing one’s imagination takes work, but can be a powerful driver.

“When I wrote that first rap, I discovered something I really loved to do. It gave me a freedom that I found nowhere else, and it’s really where I found my purpose,” he said.

“Imagination is not only for the arts. It can apply to everyday life to create the reality you want to see.”

Common was a first-year student at Florida A&M University, a historically Black school, when he was offered a music contract. He signed it and left during his second year.

His mother, who was not fully on board with his plan, nevertheless did help him hone his motivational skills.

“My mother used to worry me about making a vision board. She had seen Oprah create a vision board,” he said. He kept putting her off, until finally, he did it.

“I wrote my visions and goals for the year, and things started to change. Every time I needed to be reminded of what I wanted to see for myself, I would go to that board and it would remind me,” he said.

“I was imagining myself as an artist before I knew how to get there. I was able to see myself as a hip-hop artist.”

One way to bolster imagination and self-belief is to surround yourself with like-minded people, he said. He was working with fellow rap artist Kanye West, who now goes by Ye.

“Kanye was producing my album and also putting out his own album. And you all know he has no problem believing in himself,” he said.

“We would do listening sessions and Kanye would hop up on the table, rapping so hard. I remember being inspired, and I wasn’t afraid to embrace greatness.”

Common said that some of the hardest work he has done has been on himself. He told the audience that the three things he’s focused on are gratitude, his belief in God and meditation.

“So often I would go into situations worrying about what would happen. There’s a difference between worrying and preparing for a moment,” he said.

“Through these tools, I’ve started to become more present in the moment. Being present in the moment is truly a gift.”

In 2015, Common performed the song “Glory” at the Academy Awards show along with his co-writer, John Legend.

“I remember doing everything I could do to be present. To this day it’s one of the most joyous moments in my life because I cleared the energy of everything else except being there,” Common said.

He and Legend won the Oscar for best original song that night for “Glory,” from the 2014 film “Selma.” Common played civil rights leader James Bevel in the movie.

The rapper said that as he found success and worked on himself, he also needed to work on helping the world. In 2012, he founded the Common Ground Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to empower young people through mentoring, service projects and arts programs. He has also become an activist for social justice causes, spending time with people who are incarcerated.

“I’ve been in some of the darkest places I’ve ever been in my life in these prisons. I’ve met some of the most enlightened people I’ve ever met — people who have been dehumanized by a country and a system, but they see themselves differently and are using their imaginations to change their trajectories,” he said.

“They see themselves as human beings. If they can do the work from behind bars using their imaginations, then we can definitely use our imaginations to change things.”

Rapper and actor Common told an ASU audience that upcoming projects include scoring a film and performing on Broadway, during the Nov. 15 Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture, sponsored by Barrett, The Honors College. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU News

After his talk, Common spent more than an hour answering questions from the audience.

What he would tell his 18-year-old self: “Be open to discovering. I would tell myself to be easy on myself. One thing I wish I had done at 18 was pursue a musical instrument earlier. I’m around so much music now, and the artists I love and work with communicate in a language I don’t understand all the time.”

Will he go into politics? “I know how important the policymakers are, and the people in politics. But I feel like if I participated in it, it would eat away at my heart and soul. I’m too authentic to play the political game. I’ll support the ones who are the most authentic and say, ‘I’ll let you deal with all that stuff.’"

On playing a police officer in the 2018 film “The Hate U Give”: “We were living at a time when so many people were being killed by policemen, so for me to play a policeman and try to give that perspective was a challenge for me. In every aspect of my life I was speaking against police brutality. It was difficult for me to go fully into that space because so much of my real life was raising awareness and I was dealing with mothers who had lost daughters and sons to police killings. But it was not judging the character and showing his humanity.”

Top image: Hip-hop artist and actor Common was the speaker for the 2021 Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture on Nov. 15 at the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News