Masters of Microscopy

Wim van Egmond on Unique Sample Preparation Techniques

Welcome to the first edition of 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.  

Van Egmond looks for microbes at the Berkelse Meer location where Antoni van Leeuwenhoek first found them. 

Nikon’s Small World competition has showcased the world’s most compelling microscopy images — and the most talented artists and scientists who captured them — for over four decades. Thousands of remarkable images are submitted by hundreds of entrants year over year, and each year we proudly share new talent with the world.

That said, certain individuals have seen their stunning imagery win a top spot again and again thanks to work that enthralls competition judges and fans alike. One of those individuals, and one of Nikon Small World’s most prolific winners is Wim van Egmond.

Beginning in 2002, his images have been recognized by Nikon Small World 32 times, including two first place finishes and a total of 10 top twenty finishes.

Based in the Netherlands, Van Egmond lives at the exact spot where Antoni van Leeuwenhoek in 1674 found microbes for the first time. A fan of Leeuwenhoek’s work, Van Egmond set out to learn more about his discoveries and developed a passion for capturing photos through the microscope.

His photos and videos span many subjects, but Van Egmond has an impressive talent for capturing microscopic life forms, such as diatoms, ciliates and rotifers. These living subjects can be quite difficult to capture, as they are sensitive to temperature changes and tend to retract because of the heat of the microscope illumination lamp. Aside from being fragile living beings, it is almost impossible to know when an exciting moment is about to happen under the microscope. Without patience and a careful eye, it would have been very easy to miss the shot that won him the 2015 Small World in Motion prize, a Trachelius ciliate finding its dinner in a Campanella ciliate.

Van Egmond is by training and trade, not a scientist but an artist and photographer. As someone who does not have access to a high-tech lab every day, a unique aspect of Van Egmond’s work is his innovative approach to the preparation of his images. While science labs use various advanced sample preparation techniques, he uses a combination of traditional tools and a few DIY techniques. For example, rather than high precision sample manipulation equipment, he’s used a cat’s whiskers (that fell off his pet cat naturally) to properly position a mud dwelling microbe. He also uses a common household item, Vaseline, to support the cover slip over his subjects and prevent it from moving and damaging his sensitive subjects. He used this method for the image of the diatom that won in 2013.

Van Egmond explains, “What probably no one realizes is that this diatom is as deep as it is high and very fragile. It is a cork screw and the spines extend outwards around it. So the slide itself must be just deep enough so that the subject would be touching the coverslip without being damaged.”

Van Egmond uses household tools like Vaseline to position his subjects.

“The way I work is I spend a lot of time making the perfect sample, trying to manipulate the organism to behave well under a cover slip. It requires dexterity and craftsmanship, and is very meditative,” said Van Egmond. “You sit behind a microscope and enter another world through the eyepiece. It’s captivating and an endless source of inspiration.”

Van Egmond’s at home microscopy set-up.

A fan favorite from the competitions is a tiny aquatic organism, a Water flea (Ilyocryptus), (pictured below) loved by audiences because of its appearance of having a leisurely swim. As Van Egmond describes it, the water flea is “acting like a ballerina,” but to capture this image requires expert dexterity. Although difficult to do, this is one example of a sample that Van Egmond has artistically captured through skill and technique.

 

He adds: “Wildlife is so close to us, yet most of us never look close enough to see it. A pool in your garden is actually a miniature underwater jungle. I started microscopy 25 years ago, and almost every time I come home with a new sample I see something that I have not seen before.”

 

Van Egmond is a sought-after, independent artist known for his ability to bring together art and science (check out his Ted Talk on the wonders of the microscopic world). With a keen eye for scientific illustrations, he is frequently consulted to create content and microbe imaging. He helped to create an actual museum about microbes called Micropia in Amsterdam. Currently, Van Egmond is working on creating a movie featuring diatoms living in the mud of the North Sea.

He explains what motivates him to continue his artistry: “I hope my work reaches and inspires a large audience, anyone who is interested in life, strange things, and making discoveries. I want to encourage people to become more interested in science, or even in microbes.”

Van Egmond’s work perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Nikon Small World by blending stunning imagery with important scientific significance. You can view the full gallery of his winning work here or at http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/micropolitan/index.html.

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