Virtual Microscopy at Indiana University

| January 28, 2008

Microscopes at Indiana University have virtually gone digital. Thanks to Mark Braun and Anthony Mescher, professors at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, students in their respective classes can study and examine various slides of microscopic tissue samples on their laptops via a virtual microscope instead of looking at textbook examples.

"It’s not just that a textbook example doesn’t require any search and discovery," said Braun of the slide images. "No patient or disease knows to look exactly like the textbook example every time. This provides real-world learning."

The program, which Braun has used in his human pathology — or "sick" condition — class for second-year medical students, was introduced to Mescher’s histology class — which teaches the healthy or "normal" condition — for first-year medical students last semester.

Both professors believe the virtual microscope program enhances the students’ learning in several ways.

The high-tech program allows students to collaborate and view slides as a team, says Braun, a physician and a clinical professor of pathology in the medical science program at IU. Previously, team collabaoration could be a cumbersome and tedious task. Now, instead of having to show students one by one how to examine a slide, Braun can project his actions for the entire class to see at once.

It’s a resource for which Mescher, a professor of anatomy and a senior fellow at the IU Institute for Molecular and Cellular Biology, shares Braun’s enthusiasm.

"Scanning our slides into the digital microscope program is a technical breakthrough we’re very excited about," said Mescher. "I didn’t think it would work several years ago, but Mark was so successful with it in his classes that we decided to incorporate it into histology. It is a wonderful tool for the students to have."

The program, produced by Bacus Laboratories in Lombard, Ill., provides an exact replica of the physical slides which have been used in class for decades. The virtual slides can be examined and studied with the same magnifications and clarity available from a traditional microscope. (To see the program in action, visit Braun’s website at

"I’m continually impressed with the clarity and resolution of the slides," said Mescher. "It’s equivalent to working with lenses of the cleanest microscope."

Each slide owned by the department underwent a series of high resolution pictures — 20,000 for each slide — taken at the eight magnification levels available on traditional microscopes. The Bacus program organizes the pictures so that students can manipulate them exactly as if they were using a microscope. Each slide is about two gigabytes in size, and together all of the slides comprise an entire terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes, of data.

Now, with the last batch of slides from Mescher’s histology class recently completed, second-year students can review healthy samples from their first year and compare them side-by-side to the sick samples they are currently studying. Additionally, students can view slides from home rather than relying upon a lab microscope being available when they want to review for a test. Plus, they don’t have to worry about microscope maintenance, dirty lenses or breaking expensive slides.

The virtual microscope program doesn’t replace physical microscopes, however. Students still learn how to use them and are assessed on their abilities to do so, because once they graduate to hospitals and research labs, they will rely upon the tried and true instrument. The scanning process required to use virtual microscope program is simply too slow for a fast-paced diagnosis lab.

Although the software that streams the images is proprietary and does come with a yearly fee, the university saves money on microscope maintenance and new slides, which can easily be broken or scratched. Both Mescher and Braun think the program is well worth the money.

"The university was wonderful in supplying us with a $15,000 high-speed Internet II grant through the Abilene Project several years ago to cover the initial costs," said Braun. "We wouldn’t be where we are today without that generosity."

The virtual microscope is just one tool in Braun’s impressive Web site. Continually updated, it boasts annotated slides, virtual quizzes, audio lectures, practice exams and clinical cases.

The clinical cases provide real-world examples of how to diagnose a patient. Each case provides a set of facts, a movie interview with the "patient," and access to x-rays, virtual slides and other tests. The Web site allows students practice in diagnosing patients.

Although some of the Web site’s content is password protected, much of it is available to anyone. Braun has received e-mails of thanks for his Web site from Poland, France and even a Pakistani student studying in China.

"Today’s students come from a virtual world," said Braun. "It’s time we face that fact and join it."

Category: Digital Pathology News, Education, Histology

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