Podcast features three women at the forefront of cryo-EM research

An all-female trio of Penn State research scientists explain how their work on cancer diagnostics and advanced materials science evolves along with improvements in cryo-electron microscopy


By Keith Hickey

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa — The latest episode of The Symbiotic Podcast features the bleeding-edge research of three Penn State scientists working at the convergence of materials and life sciences, at the university’s best-in-class cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) facility.

Cryo-EM uses electron beams to image frozen samples and reveal their molecular structures. This technology has been the driving force behind what some observers have dubbed the “resolution revolution,” as materials that have previously been difficult to image with other approaches are now modeled with striking clarity at an unprecedented scale.

“Each of these modern cryo-electron microscopes are so powerful; it’s 10 times the power of the entire Boston subway system, per microscope,” said Deb Kelly, professor of biomedical engineering and Huck Chair in Molecular Biophysics. “You’re capturing all these atomic events that you couldn’t otherwise see. These new detectors allow you to capture atomic-level events in pristine detail.” Kelly has developed a unique structure-based approach to cancer research that would be impossible without these new technologies. She describes this work on the podcast, along with fellow Kelly Lab scientist Cameron Varano, assistant research professor of biomedical engineering, who adds a brief history of the Cryo-EM field. Jenn Gray, assistant research professor and staff scientist in Penn State’s Materials Research Institute, provides insights from a materials-oriented perspective.

“There’s more that you can do with the cryo-electron microscope than just taking images,” said Gray. “You can collect spectra that will tell you what atoms are present in the material, different types of spectra that can tell you the chemistry and the bonding, you can get diffraction patterns … you can figure everything about your material, as long as you can make a sample.”

Penn State’s cryo-EM facility, located in the uniquely designed, below-ground level of the Millennium Science Complex, features several advanced imaging tools, including the one-of-a-kind Titan Krios microscope.

“Cryo-Electron Microscopy and the Resolution Revolution” is available in audio-only and video form on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast app. Audio, video, and transcripts can be accessed at The Symbiotic Podcast website.


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Megan Lakatos


VIDEO: Watch a fascinating conversation with three Penn State experts in the field of cryo-EM. HUCK INSTITUTES OF THE LIFE SCIENCES