Bernd Zechmann

Season 5 - Episode 503

January 21, 2022

Bernd Zechmann
Bernd Zechmann

Core research centers at Baylor contain state-of-the-art equipment that students and faculty across campus utilize for impactful research projects. Bernd Zechmann leads one of these centers—he serves as director of the Center for Microscopy and Imaging and as an associate research professor at Baylor. In this Baylor Connections, Dr. Zechmann takes listeners inside labs that advance multidisciplinary projects and spur R1 research.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking with Dr. Bernd Zechmann. Dr. Zechmann serves as the director of the Center for Microscopy and Imaging, and as an associate research professor at Baylor. The Center for Microscopy and Imaging is one of four core research centers at Baylor that facilitates multidisciplinary research across six academic departments, and numerous centers, programs and institutes. The Center for Microscopy and Imaging, or as we'll call it, some CMI's main goals are to provide students and researchers with scientific support in different fields of microscopy, and a facility equipped for imaging dynamic ultra structural changes in biological samples for the basic characterization of materials and more. Dr. Zechmann came to Baylor in 2004 and after serving at research centers in the US, UK in Switzerland and Austria, and a resume that goes far beyond that. We're pleased to have you here on the program today, Dr. Zechmann. Thanks so much for joining us here on Baylor Connections.

Bernd Zechmann:

Well, thanks for having me.

Derek Smith:

So I gave a description of the Center for Microscopy and Imaging and a little bit about what you do. But we're going to unpack here over the next 20 minutes or so what that means, and how these centers advance research at Baylor, and what your role as a director looks like. But to start off, I want to start off, what parts of the job to you are the most fun, the most exciting, the most meaningful for you as the director at CMI?

Bernd Zechmann:

So there are a lot of fun and exciting aspects of my job. As a researcher, I really enjoy working with these high end microscopes. These are microscopes that are very difficult to get access to, and so for me as a researcher, it's a privilege and a very unique opportunity to use these microscopes for my own research. As a faculty and as a teacher, it is really fun for me to see how students evolve doing the time they spend at Baylor University. So most students come either as undergraduate students or as very young graduate students, and it is really exciting for me to see how they actually evolve over the years and become really good microscopists and researchers as well. For me as a person, I like to help them and be successful in their job, and that's a great aspect of my job as well. As a Christian, I enjoy the Christian environment and I can be a researcher and a Christian at the same time, so that's really exciting. And as a director, I really enjoy giving tours to people. It is fun to show off our equipment to prospective faculty and also interested students, and also to non researchers who have never visited a research facility and to get the first exposure to see what a research facility or microscopy facility looks like.

Derek Smith:

So Dr. Zechmann, if we were able to peek in there, if you were giving us one of those tours, we're able to visit for a day, what sorts of things would we see taking place inside the center?

Bernd Zechmann:

So you would see either me or students or faculty working on the microscopes. These microscopes nowadays are mostly attached to monitors, so they sit in front of a computer and look at their samples. Then you would also see students and faculty preparing samples. Before they go into the microscopes, they have to be prepared in a certain way, so you would see that. And then you would also see every once in a while someone repairing a microscope. If they break, we have to call field engineers, they come in and fix these microscopes. So that's basically what you would see on an everyday basis.

Derek Smith:

So you mentioned that these microscopes, you feel privileged to work with them. These aren't just maybe microscopes we had in our science classes in high school. Could you tell us about the equipment that is found there?

Bernd Zechmann:

Yes. So we have a lot of different microscopes in the center, and it's best to group them in different groups. So we have, of course, light microscopes. We have seven different light microscopes, and most of them look like the way they used to look when you worked with them in high school. But they have a lot of different equipment attached to it. Our most expensive light microscope is a confocal laser scanning microscope, which is a $320,000 microscope. So it looks like a high school microscope, but then it has so much more equipment attached to it that it looks almost like a big car or airplane cockpit. Then we also have electron microscopes. So instead of using light, they use electrons to image samples. These electron microscopes are really big. They fill up whole rooms, so every electron microscope gets its own room. They can magnify up to 2 million times, and so that's really exciting for students to work with because you can see way below the resolution of your eyes. You can even see atoms with these microscopes. Then we also have atomic force microscope, which is a microscope that goes also right below the resolution of atoms, so you can see atoms as well. And then we also have a lot of sample preparation equipment, lots of microtomes and equipment to cover samples with metals. So that's what you would see in the microscopy facility.

Derek Smith:

We are talking with Dr. Bernd Zechmann, director of the Center for Microscopy and Imaging at Baylor. You mentioned students, faculty, and you're a center that isn't just a part of one academic division at Baylor. So could you give us an idea of how that works and who uses this center, and how it, I guess, facilitates a number of different threads of research at Baylor?

Bernd Zechmann:

So we have currently about 90 users that used the center from eight different departments, and two institutes at Baylor University, and about 70% of them are graduate students, and 20% would be undergraduate students, and about 10% would be faculty. We also have external collaboration partners from Europe and the United States. We have about four of those. And then we also have different companies from Waco that use these facilities mainly for quality control.

Derek Smith:

So if there's a collaborative research project, or if just a student or professor in, say, chemistry or biology or what have you needs this, you're a resource for them based on a schedule and based on, I guess, who else is using it at the time. Is that a way to think about it?

Bernd Zechmann:

Yes. That's exactly the way to think about it. Yes. It depends on how they want to start a research project. They usually ask us for an appointment, then we train the students and help them to become independent on the usage of these instruments and then they can work on their specific research projects.

Derek Smith:

What are some of the fun ways that people use the instruments in research?

Bernd Zechmann:

So there are many different projects going on. We have about 120 different projects going on right now in the facility, but you can group them mainly in three big groups. One of them is nanoscience, another one is material science, and the other one is life sciences. Nanosciences deals with very small particles. These particles are about a hundred to a hundred thousand times smaller than the width of a hair, that's why it's called nano research, and these nano particles are everywhere. They are in our cosmetics in deodorant to clog our pores, they're in toothpaste, they are on food. And before they can be used in everyday products, they have to be characterized. So you use these microscopes to characterize the shape, the size, the surface structure, because if they're too small, they might accumulate in certain tissue parts or certain cell parts, and so before you can mix them into everyday products, they need to be characterized. In material sciences, we have mostly engineers. They come with different pieces or parts. For example, they can come with car parts or airplane parts, weapon parts or filters, and they just want to see what the surface structure looks like, and they also want to see what elements they are made out of. And then in life sciences, we have users that come, usually, they do a lot of drug research. So they feed, for example, cancer cells and healthy cells with a drug, and if the cancer cell dies and the healthy cells survive, then they know, hey, this is a good drug that would maybe help to defeat cancer. Sometimes they also just treat cells with components and want to see if the cells dies in order to figure out if a component is toxic for example.

Derek Smith:

So everything from everyday products we use, to great questions like trying to cure cancer and things of that nature. Very, very exciting as we visit with Dr. Bernd Zechmann. And then let's zoom out a bit. We said that the Center for Microscopy and Imaging is one of four core research centers at Baylor. So what is it? I think you've already painted that picture a bit, but just ask specifically what is a core research center like you and your fellow core research centers across campus?

Bernd Zechmann:

That's a very good question. The best way to imagine a core facility is to imagine it as an open lab or an open kitchen. So everyone can come and perform research and use state-of-the-art equipment. So on the one side, we provide space for research to be performed, and on the other side we provide instruments and skills to support the research that's performed there. So me specifically, I provide the expertise in microscopy. I train students on these microscopes, but then I also help them to do data interpretation. Because it's one thing to learn how to use the microscope, but then it's also sometimes very tricky to figure out what that result actually means for the specific research. We also maintain the equipment and repair it. We do the administration of the daily operation, and so basically it's an open lab that we administrate and help students and faculty to be successful in their research.

Derek Smith:

That what you talk about, working with students, be they graduate or undergraduate, you're helping them not only how to. I got to think it's a competitive advantage for them to be able to learn how to use this equipment, but then also even more importantly, that interpretation aspect of what they see?

Bernd Zechmann:

Yes. So I think for students, there are lots of benefits to use these facilities. One of them is that they get to use state-of-the-art instruments and produce state-of-the-art research data, which improves their standing in the scientific community. It makes them very competitive for future jobs, and it brings their career to a good start. It also adds valuable skills to their CV, because if you can say, "Hey, I can work with a state-of-the-art $6 million instrument" then you are very attractive to the job market because many people would like to work with it, but very few have the skills. And so that's really helpful for students as well. It's also helpful for students because they get into collaborations. Lots of people would like to work with these microscopes but don't have access to, so students and faculty gets asked, "Hey, can you start a collaboration with us so we can start working with these instruments?" So that helps them to create a professional network that they can use for their future career. And then all these factors of course makes them really attractive for the job market, and I can see that already with the few students that have finished while I was here. Some of them went to top tier one research facilities like Harvard, Cambridge [inaudible] Children's Hospital, so they also carry the mission of Baylor University out into the research world, and that makes me very happy and proud as well.

Derek Smith:

That's fantastic. Visiting with Dr. Bernd Zechmann, director of the Center for Microscopy and Imaging, and associate research professor at Baylor here on Baylor Connections. Dr. Zechmann, Baylor's made a lot of investments in research over the years. And of course, we saw the exciting news of Baylor becoming an R1 institution recently, right before Christmas. We saw how that's paid off in one certainly notable way, but I want to ask you broadly, what type of investment does Baylor make in these centers, and how have you seen that grow Baylor's research enterprise?

Bernd Zechmann:

So Baylor makes a lot of investment in many different ways. On the one side, they invest a lot of money into state-of-the-art instruments, and on the other side they invest also in personnel that has the skill to operate and to train users on these instruments. Of course they also invest a lot of money into lab space. We just moved into a new lab last year, and Baylor spent one and a half millions to just renovate lab space for the CMI, and also for the other facilities. They also invest a lot of money into scheduling software, purchasing software, building software, into repairs. These microscopes cost a lot to repair, and so they invest a lot of money there too. And just a highlight of my career was last year when we ordered a new $6.5 million transmission electron microscope. That was the list price. And so there's a lot of money that flows into the center. Just in those last seven years, Baylor bought 10 new microscopes and 10 instruments for sample preparation. So there's lots of money and a lot of effort going into the centers.

Derek Smith:

And for you personally, what goes into being director, and what aspects of your training really helped prepare you for this?

Bernd Zechmann:

What goes into being a director of the facility is a lot of training students, and so of course I've been trained by really good professors and faculty as well, and so that flows towards me training other students. Then also what flows into is a consulting faculty about how to be successful with their research project and with their research in general, and I've been an associate professor myself, so I know what it means to write project proposals, I know what it means to get funding and how competitive it is, and I also know how important it is to be supported by highly skilled researchers, and to be able to use state-of-the-art equipment. And so all that flows into me helping researchers to be successful in their research. Also important is to administrate the operation of the center. So we are often just managers. We manage scheduling, billing, invoicing, so that's important as well, and also repairing and maintaining equipment. And I've learned that because when these microscopes came out, they were really simple, and a lot of things you could fix yourself with a simple screwdriver. And so when I was a graduate student, we repaired many of these microscopes ourselves, and so that also helps me to take care of these microscopes to some extent. Also, strategic planning is important. How we want to move on, where we want to be in 10 years, and so it's important to go to visit conferences and to see how the microscopes develop and how they advance and to stay on top on how to purchase and use these microscopes. Also important is to develop new methods and techniques, and since I was a researcher myself, that's one of my big hobbies to just develop new methods.

Derek Smith:

Is it invigorating for you or with your personality? Sometimes people are locked into one discipline, but do you enjoy you having hands so many different disciplines across campus?

Bernd Zechmann:

Yes, I do. Like you said, I was locked in before in a very specific research topic, and to be honest, it gets boring after about 10 to 15 years. And so when I started my new job here, it was really exciting to work with so many different samples and research projects. We looked at whale ear wax, we looked at fungal hyphae growing into planes, we look at weapons from the defense department, and so there are just so many different aspects and I really enjoy that. And also to use the different microscopes in different ways to actually drive research forward and to help Baylor to become a really good tier one university.

Derek Smith:

Visit with Dr. Bernd Zechmann. And Dr. Zechmann, let me ask you about that. You got here in 2014, and when you came to Baylor, what stood out to you then about Baylor's research trajectory?

Bernd Zechmann:

So what really stood out back then was the motivation of the staff and the faculty to reach tier one, and that was an energy that I have not experienced before. And so when I visited Baylor, I thought, "Hey, I want to be part of that." I did see back then already that there was an increase in funding, increase in publication and faculty hiring, an increase in the quality of the research, and so when I saw that increase in the motivation, I thought, "Hey, I want to be here. I want to provide my skills to Baylor to reach tier one and to improve the research quality at Baylor University.

Derek Smith:

What aspects of the role itself were most appealing? Maybe you've described that a little bit though when you talk about being able to do more and have your hand in so many different areas.

Bernd Zechmann:

So the most appealing aspect was the Christian background of Baylor University. It is really a unique opportunity to be a Christian and a researcher, and to live both at Baylor University. This is an aspect that might not be as visible and obvious to people outside of Baylor University, but for me, that was the most appealing aspect, and I think that being a Christian and a researcher is a big privilege because you can actually explore God's creation and his image here on earth with tools that at very few Christians and researchers have actually available. And so that was my main aspect to come here.

Derek Smith:

That's great. Talk with Dr. Bernd Zechmann. This is a broad question. We talk about getting to use equipment that not everyone gets to. You've worked at a number of different places before coming to Baylor. A broad question, but how do Baylor's research facilities measure up to others you've seen?

Bernd Zechmann:

This is a very good and also tricky question, because there are a lot of different types of tier one universities. Mostly it's defined by size. So Baylor is a mid-size tier one university, then they're much larger ones and smaller ones, of course. So in my opinion, Baylor has a state-of-the-art instrument that can compete with tier one universities, but on the other side, larger tier one universities just have much more of those. So for example, we have one confocal laser scaling microscope, Harvard has 10 or 15. We have one electron microscope, Texas A&M has three or four. And so I think that we can compete with what we have, but in the future, I think we will need to purchase more specific instruments, find little niches where we can be successful and then be competitive on tier one research.

Derek Smith:

That's great. So they have the scale, but what we actually have measures up with anything.

Bernd Zechmann:

Yes. So the quality of the research and the instrument definitely measures up, but the scale is just much bigger, and they can take over much bigger research projects and just much more output as well.

Derek Smith:

What did it mean to you to see Baylor become R1? You mentioned coming here and being intrigued by the faculty's desire to see that happen, and now it's actually happened. What does that mean to you?

Bernd Zechmann:

So for me personally, it was somehow the end of a big project that I really was excited to be part of, but it's also a beginning of much more research and much more great research. And so it's both the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new journey. But I was super excited and we are really proud of what we have accomplished and what everyone has accomplished here at Baylor University.

Derek Smith:

Yeah. Certainly cause for celebration. And when you think about these core research centers and the research faculty, you can see how it all builds on itself to get to this, and then how it's going to grow in the future for sure. I want to ask you as we wind down on the program, how you talk about looking to increase the amount of equipment that Baylor has, and certainly you and your colleagues core research facilities play a big part of that. But how do you see these collaborations and opportunities growing, whether it's now that we're R1, or just in general?

Bernd Zechmann:

I think there will be a massive growth in quality and quantity of research done at Baylor University. Since we've gotten to the tier one status which was a month ago, I already got contacted by two collaboration partners, one in Texas, and one in Europe in Spain who want to collaborate with Baylor University. I think other faculty will experience the same, so I think there will be in general an increase in collaborations, and that will also of course increase the research output in the short and long term. There will also be an increase in research funding because with the tier one status, we'll also be more competitive in research funding, so there'll be more money and more funding coming in, and I also see that the research in general will come more competitive. This will also trigger an upgrade in our facilities. We need more space, and more state the art equipment.

Derek Smith:

Nothing succeeds like success, is a phrase that you could apply to this for sure. Well, Dr. Zechmann, I really appreciate you taking the time and taking us inside the core research facilities like the Center for Microscopy and Imaging. I think it's an area a lot of us really aren't super familiar with, so thanks for kind of peeling back the curtain for us today and letting us take a look inside.

Bernd Zechmann:

Thanks for having me, and thanks for giving me the opportunity to describe the work we do at the Center for Microscopy and Imaging.

Derek Smith:

Absolutely. It's been great to learn more, we appreciate your time. Dr. Bernd Zechmann, director of the Center for Microscopy and Imaging, and associate research professor at Baylor, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other Baylor Connections programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.