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Vital Signs

Students trade glass slides for computer screens

By Roger P. Smith, Ph.D.

Is there anyone who doesn't recall twiddling the knurled knob of a microscope in science class to bring a specimen on a glass slide into focus? Certainly medical students spend many an hour peering through microscopes at tissue samples-but not as many hours as they used to.

Virtual microscopy-the examination of digital images on a computer screen, rather than of glass slides through a microscope-is quickly replacing conventional microscopy at medical schools across the country. Dr. Brent Harris, the co-coordinator of pathology in DMS's second-year Scientific Basis of Medicine curriculum, made the leap into the new technology four years ago. He was impelled by the fact that he faced an expensive prospect-the need to replace the class's old teaching slide sets. Over the years, many slides had been cracked, broken, or lost. It seemed like a good time to try virtual microscopy (VM).

Focus: Now, a single slide of any given biopsy specimen can be scanned and posted on a website, where all the students in the class can view it. Students can focus in and out on the image and move it around, just like a glass slide on the stage of a microscope. Harris has long since become a believer. The benefits are many: no slides to lose or break; reduced need to service student microscopes; reduced cost to prepare slides; increased ability to use very small biopsy specimens, since a single slide can be digitized for the whole class; and increased uniformity, since students all view the same slide.

VM also allows students to study pathology at home without having to lug a heavy microscope with them. Another advantage is that several students and instructors can look at the same image at the same time on their individual laptops, while comparing notes about what they see.

Sharp: There are also a few downsides, including the need for enhanced technical support and infrastructure. The first time Harris tried out the new system in class, the server crashed. And VM images aren't quite as sharp as conventional slides, though Harris says they have gotten much better in the past few years. "This technology will be used more and more in clinical applications, very similar to the transition that radiology has gone through. By exposing students now to this important innovation, we are getting them ready for the digital future of pathology," he explains.

Microscopes are still used in some courses, Harris adds, and they retain some advantages in clinical applications-including speed, since it takes time to get a slide scanned. But the days of twiddling a microscope knob may be numbered.

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