Dr. April Burch, Science Chair and Director of AMSR

BART senior William Schrade works alongside Dr. Burch on the Ultramicrotome in Berkshire School's AMSR lab.

Since opening in 2011, Berkshire School’s Advanced Math/Science Research (AMSR) lab has continued to be a tremendous resource for aspiring scholars interested in conducting real-world research in the biological, physical, and social sciences. This high-level study has been supported by two new, state-of-the-art additions to our AMSR program.

Three years ago, Berkshire acquired a JEOL JEM-1200EXII Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM), which has enabled students to visualize everything from viruses to bacterial biofilms to carbon char residue produced from plastic pyrolysis. Without a doubt, the TEM has allowed students to obtain results needed for the School’s continued success in the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. Notwithstanding, the utility of the TEM has been limited partly because of our inability until now, to slice thin sections for detailed TEM study.

This fall, Berkshire purchased a new Leica UC7 Ultramicrotome, which allows students in the science and AMSR programs to slice very thin sections for TEM. The Ultramicrotome has the ability to cut 50 nanometers (nm) thin samples, thin enough for the electrons in the TEM to actually transmit the sample to reveal inner, very complex detail. Many kinds of material may be sectioned including but not limited to tissues, plant matter, and samples for material science. This instrument uses glass and/or diamond knives to cut very thin samples from epoxy-embedded (plastic) tissues or materials. Berkshire is the only high school in the world to have this instrument. We encourage you to visit the AMSR lab to check out the Ultramicrotome (or “tiny knife” as it is affectionately called by some students and faculty).

Students use the Ultramicrotome to cut very thin samples from epoxy-embedded (plastic) tissues or materials.

Students in the AMSR afternoon program are becoming “super users” of the Ultramicrotome. An engineer from the Leica company visited campus recently to provide us with a professional training session. Students learned how to master the alignment of the sample and knife—two key steps in successful sectioning of materials—and safe use of the knife as they are very easy to break during use if improperly aligned. Incredibly, when Dr. Abigail Lytton-Jean (Scientific Director, Nanotechnology Materials Lab at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) learned about our AMSR program from our Leica representative, she graciously donated 20 glass knives and tissue-embedded samples for us to train with this winter. Through this valuable connection, students will be able to practice using the instrument without the fear of breaking our only knife. One day, we will upgrade to diamond knives but, until then, we will become glass knife experts with the help of MIT.

Transmission Electron Microscope allows students to visualize sub-microscopic particles such as bacteria and viruses.

This winter is also special because Berkshire’s AMSR program will be “paying it forward.” Students from Berkshire Arts & Technology (BART), a college prep charter in Adams, Mass., will visit each week for a Winter Advanced Research Program. Every Wednesday, five BART students and Amy Wiles, a science teacher at BART, will be traveling to Berkshire to work alongside our AMSR afternoon program students as we master the art of tissue embedding and Ultramicrotome sectioning. All costs for participating BART students and transportation to and from our laboratory is covered by Berkshire School.

This new after-school outreach program is designed to provide BART students, who have a passion for science but limited access to technology, an opportunity to learn science and new techniques in Berkshire’s state-of-the-art AMSR lab. This year, the research experience will focus on tissue preparation, thin sectioning, and electron microscopy. Students in this winter activity will become skilled in the theory and use of the Ultramicrotome.

This outreach program would not be possible without the support of generous families and alumni who continue to support the amazing programming at Berkshire. It is our hope that this type of outreach will inspire young minds to make a difference in their lifetime. We are excited to share our resources, environment, and expertise with these young scholars.