She teaches researchers to see deeper

As director of the Microscopy Core, Michelle Itano makes an art out of science.

Graphic with photo of Michelle Itano, reading
(Photo illustration by Andrew Jacobs/UNC Creative)

In honor of Women’s History Month, The Well introduces readers to women working at Carolina who are leaving their Heel print on the University and beyond. Read previous stories in the Women Making History series.

Why her work matters

As director of the Neuroscience Microscopy Core, Michelle Itano teaches researchers how to take beautiful, complex images of specimens and other microscopic objects, assisting them with data analysis, image processing, problem-solving and tailored advice for their specific projects.

Itano specializes in the fluorescence microscope, a light microscope that uses various wavelengths of light that interact with dyes. Users “paint” specific parts of their specimens with these dyes so that when they are illuminated, only the painted structures appear while everything else remains black, creating an image not all that different from an abstract piece of art.

These microscopes allow users to see deeper, with more detail than ever before. Previously, researchers would need access to multiple microscopes to capture a variety of images at different scales. Thanks to improvements in the technology, those scales can be achieved with the same instrument.

She is also interested in pulling out more data from the images — what is known as “data mining.” Today’s microscopes produce what she calls a “crazy amount of data” that’s easier to analyze because image processing has improved. Previously, analysis could take months to complete. This is where Itano’s shifted much of her focus. How can we improve data sorting, sharing and security?

Neuroscientists aren’t the only ones benefiting from Itano’s microscope magic. She works with researchers all over the University, from dentists to gastroenterologists to cancer researchers. People who utilize the core are always working on vastly different projects, and Itano delights in this fact.

What people say about her

“Michelle is amazing. She can guide us in what we need and is connected to all these other microscopists across the country, which is great because there are certain microscopes we need for certain purposes. We’re really lucky to have Michelle at UNC.” — Jason Stein, associate professor of genetics, UNC School of Medicine

Who she is

Since middle school, Michelle Itano has been mesmerized by the power of microscopes. They can unveil a world beyond our imagination — one Itano strives to show as many people as possible. In 2006, after interning with a fruit fly lab and working with researchers contributing to the Human Genome Project in college, Itano came to Carolina primed to pursue a doctoral program. She studied a family of proteins immune cells use to recognize and respond to pathogens like HIV, Ebola and Dengue within the lab of Ken Jacobson, a cell biologist known for his innovative use of a microscope technique called fluorescence recovery after photobleaching. After graduating, Itano got a postdoctoral research position at a lab one floor above a microscope mecca: the Bio-Imaging Resource Center at Rockefeller University, one of the world’s most comprehensive facilities for state-of-the-art microscopes and scientific imaging. In 2018, Itano came back to Carolina to lead the UNC Neuroscience Microscopy Core. In 2019, she became the first person at Carolina to accept a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) grant, unique funding that has enabled her to hire two full-time staff members and tap into the wider microscopy world online.

Adapted from an Endeavors story posted by UNC Research.