Remote access to Scanning Electron Microscopy at the Natural History Museum

The expansion of remote access to microscopy equipment at the Natural History Museum is the subject of this post from Professor Aviva Burnstock of the Courtauld Institute of Art. The British Science Week theme of #innovation is evident in the resilience and enthusiasm of staff and students from both organisations.

The Courtauld has for decades maintained a fruitful collaboration with the Natural History Museum (NHM) for research on painting materials and techniques and evaluating methods for the conservation of paintings. We have relied on regular access to scanning electron microscope (SEM) imaging and elemental analysis for the examination of paint layers and high-resolution imaging and characterisation of inorganic pigments that cannot be identified using other methods. Lockdown presented major challenges for access to these vital resources, equipment and expertise. Alex Ball and Innes Clatworthy from the Natural History Museum have worked tirelessly to provide our staff and students remote access for electron microscopy including training and support. Now we can, following current Covid safety regulations, deliver our samples to the NHM and book a remote session on the equipment, undertaken through our lap-tops from the comfort of our homes. Support for this process has inspired the current generation of students, many of whom come from fine arts and humanities backgrounds to do the high-level scientific work that is essential for the conservation of paintings even in these most difficult times.

With the initial guidance (and patience) of Innes, the remote control of the SEM machine felt very similar to using the system in person at the NHM. The screen resolution was clear, the connection was good and it was easy to save and access files, I just need to remember how to use all the buttons!”  Megan Levet  graduate student in Conservation, Courtauld Institute of Art

It was really amazing and slightly surreal to be able to use the equipment from my house. Innes was super helpful and made the process seem easy and straightforward. I look forward to making the most of this facility in the near future”, India Ferguson graduate student in Conservation, Courtauld Institute of Art. 

I didn’t expect to be able to begin using SEM EDX at this time when so much is restricted. I was unsure how the analysis would work remotely. With the support of Innes at the NHM accessing the software was straightforward; once the sample was in the chamber it was almost as good as being there. Beautiful images of a painting cross section were streamed to my laptop and analysis could be performed simply by pointing and clicking on a chosen area. I look forward to using this powerful tool to support my work in the near future!” Jack Chauncy, graduate student in Conservation, Courtauld Institute of Art

A picture of remote SEM access
Accessing the Natural History Museum’s SEM remotely
(Image copyright Courtauld Institute of Art)

Written by Aviva Burnstock, Professor of Conservation at the Courtauld Institute of Art

If you can control a Mars rover from Houston, Texas… you can surely drive an SEM from across London

This post continues on from our last post ‘Back to the Future’ which explored how the Natural History Museum developed remote access to some of its laboratory equipment during lockdown. Here, Dr Joyce Townsend from Tate, describes her experience of using the equipment from home.

As I spend another groundhog day at home during the third lockdown and imminent first anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic, remote access for running instruments at the Natural History Museum (NHM) seems like a concept that was developed just in time. I’ve been an electron microscope user and driver at the NHM for some 10 years now – certainly long enough to have used 2 or 3 models of variable pressure SEM (scanning electron microscope), two software packages, and three operating systems. My samples consist mainly of paint fragments on self-adhesive carbon stubs, interspersed with larger and more complex paint samples mounted in resin blocks and exposed as cross-sections, and a few outliers such as canvas, metals and plastics. Since they come mainly from artworks, anything large enough on the stub to spot by eye in a good light – provided such a small specimen is also representative – is the right size for SEM-EDX. I do sometimes seek assistance with imaging of canvas, or newly-applied and solvent-rich paint (high vacuum would make short work of its topography!), but in most cases I am more interested in elemental analysis to prove or disprove identifications of inorganic pigments and extenders from optical microscopy, and sometimes to reveal unexpected elements. High-resolution imaging is not usually my aim for many samples. A knowledge of historic pigments used in the west, and of a great variety of historic manufacturing processes, enables good inferences to be made about the compounds in the samples, in nearly all cases. My samples are at least fairly robust, and there are no issues with shelf life or storage temperature, as I deliver them to a masked figure emerging from the premises on freezing mornings.

My fellow conservation scientists and all my other colleagues with humanities backgrounds were vastly impressed when I announced, ‘If you can control a Mars rover from Houston, Texas, you can surely drive an SEM from across central London’. Then I wondered whether Tate systems would ever communicate seamlessly with NHM systems. The set-up was lengthy and took a day of effort, and the process of logging in through two opposing firewalls is never fast – but it does work. I have always established the connection from my usual workplace whilst logged into both systems, which makes for a complicated workspace on a large single screen. It does enables instant storage of the snipped or screenshot spectra and locator images into PowerPoint format on our own system, ready to be dropped into artwork reports and interpreted with other data. This data capture is far more time-efficient that the different workflows I have used in the NHM processing lab over the years. There’s an additional big advantage in being able to access other data and artwork information instantly through the Tate system whenever I need more sample information, which cannot be done in South Kensington without hogging a number of workstations at one time to make it possible.

Running the SEM remotely now works very smoothly, in fact. This month I have used it for two full days. The JEOL IT500 has clearly been designed for the purpose: its stage movement and auto functions for focussing and brightness/contrast make it far more possibly to drive the SEM from one keyboard and no joysticks than it would have been for earlier models. It helps to pre-plan the sample holder map to include groups of samples of the same height and stub size, and to ask for large groups of samples to be placed on the larger holder that fits in the chamber. The filament may still occasionally fail in the midst of analysing the most interesting sample of the day, but the support team is on call (now by Teams as well as e-mail and mobile) and they will replace it and refocus to average sample height. Remote training for new users must be more challenging for them, but that sounds perfectly feasible too.

Written by Dr Joyce H Townsend, Senior Conservation Scientist, Tate

Back to the Future

Our next post for British Science Week 2021 is from Dr. Alex Ball of the Natural History Museum. His post focuses on the challenges and opportunities presented by a move to provide remote access to laboratory equipment during lockdown.

In the (almost) 30 years since I joined the NHM as a PhD student, the one constant has been that the electron microscope labs were a resource that you had to book in advance and physically turn up to use your session on the microscopes. SEM sessions were typically a half day at a time before you had to give up the microscope to the next user, or perhaps you’d get lucky and were able to work on until the end of the day. The rules were simple, you could have two sessions booked in advance and you could book another session once the first session had started.

We worked like this to prevent users from block booking a microscope for days on end as everyone deserved an equal chance on the instruments.

As the equipment got more and more sophisticated and could be programmed, it was not unusual for users to set up programmed imaging or analysis sessions to run overnight, or even over the whole weekend if enough samples could be loaded and programmed in advance.

A very few, experienced users were authorised to work late and even to come in at weekends, under the proviso that if anything went wrong, they had to follow their training, switch the instrument to a safe mode, let the staff know what had happened and then go home.

Then in March everything changed.

With just a few days’ notice, the Imaging and Analysis Core Research Laboratory (IAC) staff had to place the whole laboratories into some sort of safe mode, shut down instruments where possible and arrange to leave the labs, for weeks, months, who knew? Instruments that had never been shut down for more than two days were suddenly idle. Would they restart? Could they be reanimated? No-one knew.

A few staff came in one or two days a week to check for problems and to ensure that all was well, but apart from that, the corridors were dark and silent. The scene more like a science fiction horror movie set than the bright and lively place we were used to.

©  Trustees of the Natural History Museum

When we finally returned, a few at a time, we had the mammoth task of restarting all the instruments, testing and recalibrating, booking in missed service visits, fixing stuff that had failed and then figuring out how to make all of this kit accessible again.

Throughout lock-down we’d been attending remote conferences and the question everyone was asking was “How do we get back to work safely?” The community spirit in those meetings was really encouraging. The first meeting I attended included participants from all over the world, including the USA, Portugal, France, Germany and Australia to name a few. Solutions came thick and fast, so we weren’t having to go it alone, we could ask each other for advice and for help.

For the Electron Microscopy unit, this gave us the confidence to try something we had never allowed in the past and in fact had not even really contemplated: remote access to the instruments. Starting from what we’d learned and discussed with other labs and with the NHM’s IT team, we set up the instruments to allow remote desktop access and then set to work testing and practising.  First from one computer to another in the same room, then from an office to the SEM (scanning electron microscope) within the lab and then finally with one staff member at home and another providing support in the lab.

At each stage we documented our findings, worked out safe ways to work and moved on. As soon as the financial accounts reopened we ordered new sample holders, so that instead of loading six or eight samples, we could load 25 or 50. We were no longer planning to confine users to half a day, but contemplating sessions lasting 2 days or more.

Finally, after about two weeks, when we felt that we’d completed enough testing, we started to reach out to the users. We had our priority user list provided by Science Group and so we set about contacting them, scheduling training, acquiring samples, or planning for samples to be prepared. We trained a few of them to safely use an instrument from their home office, how to control a microscope which was normally controlled with two joysticks and a complex control panel with just the mouse and keyboard they had. We simplified the user interfaces so that instead of two screens, they only needed one.

Samples get dropped off in the IAC corridor, or are collected from offices and are quarantined for a few days, photographed and then put aside until needed, or sent across to the newly reopened mineral prep labs for preparation.

Every case seemed to be different. What was the minimum network speed required to control the microscope, move the sample and focus the image? How did we control two different computers from a single laptop so that we could operate both the SEM and the EDX system? How did we accommodate Apple users? Could we allow external users remote access to the instruments?

For the past few weeks, we’ve been reinventing the labs. It’s clear that the relationship between the users and the staff has changed. Remote training has proven to be surprisingly easy, provided the network connection is good and Teams or Windows Remote Assistance is playing nicely. On the flipside, when things go wrong, it can take days for us to find the solution.

We are finding users can fit their instrument sessions in around their lives in lockdown, so being able to load one to two days’ worth or samples is a huge advantage. Not everything works and patience is required, but we’ve found that it’s just about possible for us to supervise two or three users.

Our users are also processing their data remotely. Not only have they been accessing the instruments, but they’ve been accessing the workstations remotely as well. The micro-CT lab led the way in this by opening up their workstations right from the beginning of the lock down. We also have to give the instrument suppliers credit for being so willing to work with us and advise us on how best to manage this and also for making some pretty expensive pieces of software available to home users right through to the end of September.

We have so few active users at present, but we feel just as busy. Meeting someone you haven’t seen for months in person is a shock, but also a welcome distraction. There are still people I am working with that I’ve never met, other than from the other side of a webcam and screen.

There’s a lot of work still to complete and I have a lot of concerns over how we are going to teach the next generation of microscope users. Some people I’ve worked with over these past two months haven’t even seen the instrument that they’ve now spent days using.

This new way of working is making me wonder what the future will be like. Will some of our visitors be able to access instruments remotely, so removing the need for them to come to the Museum at all? Could this usher in a new era of accessibility for those who would normally not have the money or opportunity to travel to the UK and to access these lab facilities?

What are the security implications for our instruments and network?

How do we get data to users, remember the files can be really large and how will they process them? What additional hardware do home users need to work effectively? At work I use two screens. At home I have the luxury of a decent sized screen, but many are working just from a laptop screen. Remote support for us has heavily relied on mobile phones, headsets and webcams. Teams, Whatsapp and even plain phone calls have all played a role in getting connected and supported.

There is a new initiative, “The Future Ways of Working” which will be looking into this for the future, but it’s clear that a lot of these solutions need to come sooner rather than later. For now, if users need access, we do our best to make it happen.

Restarting equipment left idle for months produced remarkably few problems. ©  Trustees of the Natural History Museum
Testing control interfaces and remote assistance options ©  Trustees of the Natural History Museum
The novelty value of being able to connect to any of the microscopes from my computer at home, at any time of day or night cannot be overestimated ©  Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Written by Dr Alex Ball of the Natural History Museum.