Where technical expertise meets scientific ambition
The Electron Microscopy Centre at Utrecht University
At the Electron Microscopy Centre, facility manager Chris Schneijdenberg and technical support Hans Meeldijk form an almost inseparable duo, so much so that they call themselves Buurman & Buurman – internationally better known as Pat & Mat – the two handyman puppet characters from a well-known children’s show of the same name. “They’re a bit like my adopted godparents,” says Savannah Turner, one of the researchers who is most involved with the EM facility in Utrecht.
Electron Microscopy Centre
The Electron Microscopy Centre at Utrecht University is devoted to the development and application of electron microscopy methodologies for life sciences, geosciences, and materials sciences research. It covers the entire range of specimen preparation, electron microscopy data collection and analysis, and 3D reconstruction techniques.
In 2022, a brand-new EM Square will be taken into use at the David de Wied building.
There are no other places like this for high-end microscopes in the Netherlands
Sitting down with Chris is almost like attending a one man show about the history of electron microscopy in Utrecht. “The oldest electron microscope that we currently use, dates back to 2001. Do you know the story of how we got it? At that time, we were working with older electron microscopes in the Kruyt building. A fire broke out, and we used those microscopes to analyse the ash and prove that they’d all have to be replaced. The university gave me a Nokia cell phone – I think I was one of the first people at the university to have a work cell phone! – to handle all the practical things. I called people all over the country to arrange microscopy time for all our researchers while we set up the new facility.”
This wir schaffen das mentality appears to be central to Chris’ way of life and work. Since 2016, the electron microscopes at Utrecht University are all located in one facility with its own team. Chris proudly says: “We were given four years to reach the break-even point financially, but we only needed one year to get there. At this moment, we have about 120 active users.”
Chris handled the corona pandemic with the same spirit, managing to keep the EM facility up and running during most of it. “At the start of the pandemic, we were just about to receive our newest and most powerful addition to the EM line-up, the Spectra 300. We managed to get permission to receive and install the machine just after the first lockdown. And when we made it clear that corona-related research was also important during the lockdown, we got approval to continue working on it.”
The team are now in the process of moving from their temporary location in the Androclus building to the new EM Square at the David de Wied building. Chris’ eyes light up when he talks about it. “It sounds a bit cliché, but in all honesty, it is objectively the best, most beautiful EM facility in the Netherlands. We have four completely vibration-free islands there, each based on a 30,000 kilo concrete block with added spring suspension. There are no other places like this for high-end microscopes in the Netherlands.”
Seeing people grow is really the best part of my job
Though Hans is probably one of the most experienced electron microscopists in Utrecht, his words and demeanour don’t show it. “I’m just a microscope user, really. Sure, I am a specialised user, and we do some of the maintenance ourselves, but I have so much admiration for the people who design and build these machines.”
Hans has worked with electron microscopes since 1994, when he joined the geology department at Utrecht University as a lab analyst. By now, as part of the team behind the Electron Microscopy Centre, he does only the most complex microscopy jobs himself. “I spend most of my time training PhD candidates and giving them advice on which techniques to use. We use very sensitive equipment, and that means you have to carefully get to know the machines in order to use them properly.”
Hans’ quiet and patient way of speaking seems to translate to his way of working with both the microscopes and their users. “Because you work on the nanoscale and with an ultra-high vacuum, any disturbance is too much. When you’re loading samples into a machine, you must be fast, but not hurried. You must have stable hands. That makes some people quite nervous.” Never one to be deterred, he trains people with endless patience. “If we have to do it over and over again, then that’s what we do.”
When talking about the various electron microscopes in his fleet, Hans speaks about each of them with respect, and one senses that he can’t choose a favourite. “Our newest microscope, the Spectra 300, is really powerful, but it’s still a challenge to get to know it better. Our most powerful cryo-electron microscope loads twelve samples simultaneously, freezing them to extremely low temperatures.”
The older and simpler microscopes also have a special place in his heart. “When training new users, I always start with the simplest microscope. It looks complicated but is very user friendly. And because all our machines happen to be from the same manufacturer, I can let the researchers progress step by step to more powerful ones and teach them the extra skills they need. I train practically everyone who works with the electron microscopes in Utrecht, about twenty people each year. They’re mostly PhD candidates, and I usually keep working with them throughout their PhD. Seeing people grow is so rewarding. It’s really the best part of my job.”
Working with an electron microscope is just really fancy scientific photography
“Working with an electron microscope is essentially just really fancy scientific photography,” Savannah laughs. “In all seriousness though, it really is an art form.” Not just because the resulting pictures are nice – there are worldwide competitions to choose the most beautiful or artistic EM pictures of the year – but also because you must get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. “There are a lot of complex settings on an electron microscope and working with different samples requires different approaches. It requires a lot of practice and experience.”
Because she already had two years of experience with electron microscopy prior to starting her PhD, Savannah has been highly involved in bringing together the EM community in Utrecht. “Of course, Hans and Chris manage the microscopes and teach the new researchers what all the buttons do. But because electron microscopy is such an art and there are so many different techniques, every EM user has their own tips and tricks. Their own superpower, basically. And that’s why having a community is so important. If I’ve got a question about preparing a certain sample, a specific type of scanning job or data processing, I know which of my colleagues to talk to.”
That means having a strong community around the EM facility is not just a nice bonus, but rather an essential part of it. Savannah laments the huge impact that the corona pandemic has had on the electron microscopy community in Utrecht. “Usually, we are quite a tight group, and we teach each other a lot, but of course a lot of people finished or started their PhD’s during the pandemic. That means there has been a break in the passing on of knowledge. We’ve tried training people online, but to be honest, that’s an absolute nightmare. I’m so happy that the new EM Square will have more space to meet each other. You really need to be able to work side by side and share experiences.”