New Microscopes Help Students Learn Safely

To help veterinary students learn to use a microscope—while still following social-distancing guidelines—Cummings School invested in state-of-the-art technology
Veterinary students work on microscopes at stations separated by plexiglass shielding, with an iPad held by their instructor to monitor what they are seeing. New microscopes Cummings help students learn safely
As veterinary students work on the new microscopes at stations separated by plexiglass shielding, their instructor can see what they’re viewing through their individual microscopes on an iPad. Photo: Perry Bain
August 24, 2020

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Knowing how to use a microscope is a skill that veterinarians need to have on day one of practice.

“When veterinary students head out into the real world, they’ll be routinely faced with having to look at a blood smear or cytology slide under a microscope to figure out what’s wrong with a patient,” said Cummings School assistant professor and veterinary clinical pathologist Perry J. Bain. “Our job is to teach them how to do that—how to look at a slide and how to interpret what they see.”

Normally, veterinary students at Tufts learn to use a microscope in large laboratory classes and in smaller groups on pathology rotations. Both approaches require professors to work very closely with students.

“It's a hands-on process, because the students are always going to find something and ask, ‘What is this thing I’m looking at?’” said Bain. “And maybe what they found is important, maybe it’s garbage, or maybe they’ve got the slide on upside down.”

To help students confidently learn to navigate these ins and outs, pathology instructors “have to step into their space, look through the same eyepiece, and handle the focusing knob they were just handling,” he said.

With the pandemic, that’s certainly not an ideal approach. In the spring, when Cummings School sent all students home for remote learning, the pathology faculty got creative. They attached video cameras to their microscopes to create a live feed for the pathologist to share slides and discuss with students in virtual classrooms on Zoom.

With the Grafton campus open again for teaching, this virtual approach still supplements microscope training for students when they are not scheduled for in-person labs or rotations.

But now veterinary students have an even better option to stay safe while learning on-campus, benefiting from Cummings School’s investment in six state-of-the-art microscopes with WiFi-enabled digital cameras.

The new microscopes allow instructors to view all the students’ slides on an iPad or on a computer in real time, as well as to project live images from any of their microscopes for group viewing and discussion. The students can also view live images from their classmates’ microscopes using a computer or iPad.

The initial feedback from the students has been overwhelmingly positive, for both the microscopes themselves and for the system, said Bain.

“The new technology really solves the social distancing problem, but also makes our pathology training better than it was before,” he said. “After decades of being blind as to what our students are seeing through their microscopes, it will enhance teaching for years to come—long after COVID-19 restrictions are someday lifted.”

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.