Masters of Microscopy

Fabian Weston on Microscopy, Music and Microbes

Welcome to Masters of Microscopy: The People Behind the Lens, where we showcase and celebrate the individuals who are the heart of the Nikon Small World competitions. They are scientists, artists, researchers, educators and everyday curious individuals who uncover the fascinating microscopic world around us.

Fabian Weston

This year's Nikon Small World in Motion first place winning movie was created by Fabian Weston of Microfauna in the gut of a common type of Australian termite. These Microfauna (a variety of microscopic organisms) are crucial to a termite’s ability to digest the wood they eat and are difficult to image because of extreme sensitivity to numerous environmental conditions. Mr. Weston has skillfully and beautifully overcome these obstacles to bring us a closer look at the common termite and how they digest wood, making him a true “Master of Microscopy”.

For Weston, microscopy started as a boyhood passion at the age of 12. He started seeking out unseen worlds with a microscope before photomicrographs were commonplace. “I used to sit at my special desk in the backyard with my microscope and samples, doing experiments, taking notes and sketching what I was seeing into my journals. That was a time before the equipment for photo and video microscopy was more accessible to the everyday person, especially kids,” he said.

While life and his career took him in a different direction from a career in protistology (a branch of biology focused on protists) he’d dreamed of, Fabian has rediscovered his love for microscopy in recent years - connecting with professors and artists and recently launching his own YouTube channel to share what he sees under the scope.

Hailing from semi-rural Australia, Fabian was outstanding at science throughout high school and spent many lunch breaks in the school lab looking through the microscope. He landed his first job out of high school as a laboratory technician testing water samples for chemical components. Working in a lab without a microscope inevitably led to a career change and a switch to another passion: sound, music and audio technology. Fabian has worked in sound engineering/design and in music production for over twenty-five years and has worked with some of Sydney’s top line recording studios, alongside some of Australia’s best musical talent, engineers and producers. Five years of which as in-house engineer at the renowned Albert Studios, the birthplace of AC/DC.

Fabian editing a film and composing music for a film in his home studio

It is this passion for science, art, creativity, storytelling and music production that paved the way for the creation of Protist Lab Films (Fabian’s film lab), which aims to generate awareness of the protist kingdom among people from all walks of life through engaging films. Started from a passion, Fabian hopes the film lab will move towards creating more informative documentaries, digital media content for the education sector, school STEM vocational programs in microscopy, content for Dolby Vision HDR and VR headset technologies, art installations, workshops with wetland groups and much more.

Fabian recording location audio and video, including capture of underwater footage and taking samples for his microscopy from a local creek near his home.

“I believe the fascination with the microscopic aspects of nature brings out the naturalist in us all -- like a return to that innocent child-like wonder, curiosity and adventurous spirit of our youth. We rediscover that which has been taken for granted or overlooked and it’s a passion shared across cultural boundaries,” explains Fabian. In particular, Fabian became interested in the idea of relationships and dependencies as the fundamental sustainer of nature. “I felt termites, in their simple way, were a fabulous representation of this interdependence between discrete types of organisms. When we think in this manner the word ‘termite’ starts to assume a whole new meaning, no longer is it just an insect but instead a fine balance of multiple creatures whose existence depends on each other’s success, a relationship that has no name yet. Certainly, the formation of this relationship is an amazing and mysterious tale from nature.” said Fabian.

Fabian’s artfully rendered film of the symbionts in a termite’s gut took first prize at this year’s Small World in Motion competition, which culminated in months of trial and error, sampling, and resampling combined with an abundance of research on methods, techniques and taxonomy. Fabian felt these challenges from the outset. After all, extracting hind-gut inhabitants like parabasalids and spirochaete bacteria is no easy task.

Fabian's microscopy workspace

The hindgut has a unique chemistry, temperature, pH and salinity hard to mimic perfectly. Trickier still is the sensitivity of these flagellated protists to oxygen and light. Removing them for viewing under the microscope required speed and being well prepared to film immediately. In the end, Fabian used an augmented saline eyewash solution, heated to remove dissolved gases then capped airless and left to cool. He then placed a drop of the solution on a slide and opened the termite gut into the solution and immediately placed on a coverslip and began filming.

“I was inspired firstly to look at termites by the work of Australian botanist and legend of videomicrography, Professor Jeremy Pickett-Heaps. He was a true Master of Microscopy. The film is in part a tribute to his work, and I thought it worth sharing. There is little film documentation out there on the subject and the overall difficulty of getting a good result made it seem worth entering it,” says Fabian.

For anyone beginning to explore an interest in bioimaging and microscopy, Fabian recommends the time old adage of “persistance”. It may sound surprising, but Fabian explains that he got to this point largely by engaging with the ‘Amateur Microscopy’ group on Facebook a few years ago when he’d returned to the microscope. “…this could be people that just started out making average images, to people that you would consider super professional with high quality microscopes and cameras and decades of skill at photography. So, it’s a wonderful mix of skill levels and great things are coming from the it. Honestly, my very first images were just plain horrible, but I just loved making them. But it was the members of that group to whom I am grateful and provided a community that didn’t exist when I was a boy. Though my eternal gratitude must go to Professor David Patterson who has been a catalyst, guide and friend throughout my journey back to microscopy.”

Fabian collects samples with his daughter, his ‘Master of Samples’.

At the end of the day, Fabian’s best advice is: “Persistence, persistence, persistence. Don't give up. Don’t dream, have a strong vision instead and work hard with deliberation. Keep it simple. Persist and your art will naturally improve and become more refined and unique to yourself. It’s the same as music. You start out playing an instrument and you’re terrible, but you keep at it, make mistakes and you start getting somewhere and you never know where you could end up.”

Fabian is a strong proponent of STEM programs for students. He believes that by showing students what is possible with a microscope, a new world of discovery will open up with the potential to inspire a new generation of young naturalists and scientists to continue shining light in dark, hidden places.

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