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Jean Brennan
The research specialist explains what it takes to help scientists capture highly specific images.

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Jean Brennan fiddles with the confocal microscope. Mostly self-taught, she credits her father, a Kodak engineer, for instilling a love of photography.
Jean Brennan fiddles with the confocal microscope. Mostly self-taught, she credits her father, a Kodak engineer, for instilling a love of photography.

Behind the lens of a lab microscope on Meyer 6, Jean Brennan views ranks of neon-green cells. The sample: part of a mouse's nasal cavity. The goal: to monitor drug effects on easily reached nasal nerve cells in mice with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

Brennan, a research specialist in Jeffrey Rothstein's neurology lab, neither collects nor studies these samples. Her job is to help seven researchers prepare slides, take digital images of the samples, enhance the view and make sure the microscopes are in good working order.

Preparing and shooting mountains of slides every week may seem boring to some folks but not to this lifelong photography aficionado. "It's more like fine photography," explains Brennan, "rather than point and shoot. And every brain is different, so I'm always learning something new."

This interest in learning has served Brennan well. Not only does she possess in-depth knowledge of how to maintain standard microscopes, she is specially trained (thanks to a medical lab technology course and 16 years at an immunology lab, where she helped researchers prepare images) to keep up the prized confocal microscope, a behemoth that magnifies images 1,000 times in three dimensions. Laser-driven, it can slice through a sample up to 1 micron thick (a human hair is 100 microns thick), pinpointing small areas where cells communicate—a much more targeted view than that of a conventional microscope. "It's like Superman's X-ray vision," she says.

But, given the confocal's cost—about $750,000—Hopkins owns very few. Neurology shares one with five other labs. And, as with any complex tool, much can go wrong.

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Jean Brennan

Brennan is attuned to the confocal's every nuance. Once, hearing a faint noise and sensing that the fan was about to fail, she called the company to order the part. The new piece arrived just as the fan was about to blow, and it took only an hour for the service rep to fix. "Had we waited till the fan failed," observes Brennan, "we'd have been down for a week. It would have been a much more complicated—and expensive—job."

And when Brennan notices that a laser has begun to dim, she calls the service rep, and it's replaced with no disruption in schedule. The repairmen have given Brennan their cell phone numbers, so she's been able to work things out without having to go through the dispatch person.

In addition to troubleshooting, Brennan also helps researchers who need a hand processing animal tissue for different purposes—like antibody stains—and photographing the very moment cells express themselves a certain way.

Capturing a precise image can take hours. One day, recalls Brennan, she was manning the microscope as she and a researcher hunted for spinal cord cells morphing from early to mature stage (most cells in the body are mature, but with disease it's possible to see a few immature ones). Six hours later, three underdeveloped cells showed up on the computer screen morphing together. "We both gasped simultaneously," says Brennan, who caught the image in split seconds.

Rothstein, director of the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research, finds that kind of assistance rare. "Jean is high energy and has a complex way of visualizing disease." For Brennan, it's all in a day's work. Nothing's more satisfying, she says, than "helping people see things they've believed for a long time but just didn't know how to capture."

—Judy Minkove

 

 

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