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Goodbye to the old-fashioned microscope

Virtual microscopy has sent the microscope into retirement at the Faculty of Health and Medicine Sciences. A virtual specimen database is expanding and has revolutionized teaching

The microscope is now an anachronism on par with the typewriter, the cassette tape and the landline phone. Items that you will now practically never encounter outside museums. Perhaps we are not quite there yet, but at least in terms of teaching at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, the microscope has been awarded early retirement.

The reason: VIRMIK – or virtual microscopy.

Previously students at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences would spend time in microscopy rooms passing small specimen slides among each other and solving problems. These days, however, this part of their education is conducted on computers. Over time specimens have been scanned and made available online, which allows students to sit by their computers, zooming in and out of tiny specimens of anything from muscle tissue to bones.

”My guess is that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 specimens in VIRMIK, and new ones are being added all the time. Our three scanners are up and running every day”, says Niels Werner Mortensen, project manager at VIRMIK.

And as the hard drives fill up, the physical world is being emptied.

”Practically all of the faculty’s microscopy rooms are closed down, because we quite simply don’t need them anymore. Which should make our head of faculty happy, as he’s always short on rooms”, Niels Werner Mortensen elaborates.

Muscle tissue in Timbuktu

Students should be pleased.

”Today, they no longer have to be physically present at the university to look at specimens. They can sit in a café, at home or in Timbuktu for that matter, as long as there’s an Internet connection”, Niels Werner Mortensen states, before continuing to explain that the students have taken to VIRMIK with such enthusiasm that they themselves present inputs on how to improve its use.

”By way of example, it’s down to the encouragement of students that we are now able to introduce access to VIRMIK via tablets”, Niels Werner Mortensen states.

Access to all specimens

Professor Ben Vainer from the Department of Molecular Pathology at the Department of Biomedicine, who is head of VIRMIK’s user group, equates the digitalization with a ‘revolution’.

”The entire teaching situation is drastically altered. Previously, you could have 24 students who’d be sitting each with their individual microscope, and as their teacher you weren’t necessarily quite sure what exactly they were looking at. Now everybody can look at the same picture on a large screen”, Ben Vainer explains. He is also thrilled by the range of specimens.

”Previously, those of us who teach pathology, had perhaps 100 specimens we could use. Now we’re able to borrow from and refer to other subjects. The students can easily skip between healthy and unhealthy tissue, from anatomy to histology, and then compare the two. This provides both teacher and student with a completely new flexibility”, Ben Vainer elaborates.

At the same time, VIRMIK enables the students to run trial examinations from home – something that was not previously possible.

You cannot become a doctor, unless…

This is why the microscope is slowly making its way to the museum. Even if the revolution still has its sceptics.

”From time to time, I do come across professors who say ‘well, you can’t expect to become a doctor without looking into a microscope’ with a glint in their eye. But I assure you, you can”, Niels Werner Mortensen explains. Ben Vainer backs him up:

“Putting it a little polemically, you could argue that in the 1700s, there would most likely also have been doctors who said, ‘You cannot become a doctor unless you’ve learnt how to place a leech’. Which also turned out to not hold true. Such is development. As a medical student today, it’s not about learning how to use a microscope, it’s about learning how to analyse changes in tissue”, the professor explains.

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