Emory Report
October 6, 2008
Volume 61, Number 7



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October 6
, 2008
Microscopy core is scientist’s legacy

By carol clark

Electron microscopy is all about light, energy and focus — qualities that Robert Apkarian had in abundance. The famed Emory scientist died in 2006, but his spirit shines on through the many people he touched and the newly dedicated Robert P. Apkarian Integrated Electron Microscopy Core.

“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t wish I could call Rob and ask his opinion about something,” says Elizabeth Wright, director of the facility.

Wright first came to Emory as a graduate student, to join the lab of chemistry professor Vince Conticello. Her project involved developing biomaterials, derived from protein sequences, for use as medical devices.

“I had a strong desire to understand the structure of the materials we were creating,” Wright says, explaining why she took a job as a service instructor in the chemistry department’s Integrated Microsocopy and Microanalytical Facility, founded and run by Apkarian. “I received hands-on experience, and learned how to operate electron microscopes from Rob — a master of the technology.”

Running an electron microscope at a high level is an art that takes years of experience, she says. Apkarian honed his craft early in his career, working as an electron microscope technician for Nobel Prize winner George Palade at Yale University.

“Seventy percent of microscopy is sample preparation,” Wright says, explaining that Apkarian pioneered methods that are now considered essential in the field. He was one of the developers of chromium-coating methodologies, which allow for uniformly covering specimens in a thin layer of chromium, greatly enhancing image quality.

He also was a leader in the development of cryo-high-resolution scanning electron microscopy, in which bulk specimens are rapidly frozen in a matrix of glass-like ice and then imaged in the microscope at low temperature. This method captures higher-resolution images of samples in their “native states.”

A skilled microscopist must understand how each specimen interacts with the electron beam, and how to tweak the equipment to achieve the best results. Researchers throughout the University depended on Apkarian and his team, whether they wanted to image cell suspensions, protein-based materials, mammalian tissues, unusual chemical systems, quantum-dot structures, crystalline matrices or even drosophila eyes.

“Rob was extremely versatile,” Wright says. “He even imaged samples for art restorers at the Carlos Museum. He pushed the limits of every piece of equipment in the microscopy facility to get every ounce of data possible for the researchers.”

Under Apkarian’s demanding tutelage, Wright developed into a skilled microscopist herself. She continued her training in cryo-electron microscopy during a postdoctoral appointment at Caltech. She returned to Emory regularly to team-teach a workshop with Apkarian on cryo-electron microscopy, which attracted students from around the world.

Wright was still living in California when her daughter Anna was born in November 2005. Apkarian, an honorary uncle, immediately started pestering her for updates on the newborn. Three months later, Wright received the news of Apkarian’s death in a motorcycle accident, at age 52.

One of Apkarian’s goals was to develop a University-wide Electron Microscopy Core housed within the facility he designed at Cherry Logan Emerson Hall. After his death, many people throughout the University worked to see that dream through, and they have honored Apkarian’s memory by giving the newly combined facility his name.

Wright emerged as the top candidate in a search for a director. “She’s a marvelous choice,” says Apkarian’s wife, Juliette Stapanian Apkarian, associate professor and past chair of Russian and East Asian Languages and Culture. “Rob was not only a great microscopist, he was also a great teacher, and Liz is a testament to that.”

Wright, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics in the school of medicine, is using electron microscopy to research the structure of HIV during its maturation and assembly processes. She is working to secure $2 million in funding for a more advanced transmission electron microscope, a computer-operated device that uses a powerful beam of purified electrons to penetrate specimens and provide crisp, three-dimensional imaging. The new technology would take researchers throughout the University into whole new realms of the micro-world.

“I want to continue Rob’s legacy, and add my own expertise as well,” Wright says.