Meet Dr. Prof. Javier Alba-Tercedor – one of our content partners

Dr. Prof. Javier Alba-Tercedor has been fascinated by insects for as long as he can remember. Even as a child he spent hours watching the ants wander and imagining walking inside the ant-hill galleries. This was before TV, computer games, or other distractions, and with a father telling stories in which he mixed fantasy with real aspects of biology, (and by raising silkworms from butterfly eggs) Javier’s curiosity and admiration for the bug’s world grew strong.

His passion for science was also encouraged by his godfather, a famous orthopedic doctor, inviting him to observe surgeries to ease his curiosity. After learning more than most medical students ever did from his live observations, Javier chocked his godfather by telling him he was pursuing a career within Entomology instead of the expected career as a doctor.

“He stopped what he was doing, turned to me very angry. According to him, I was clearly a doctor, who in all the time I had with him had learned much more than many medical students. And that I could dedicate myself to insects as a hobby and be a good doctor with a good salary for a profession. But clearly, I am more attracted to insects and when I entered university, from the beginning, I wanted to focus on the zoological branch to be an entomologist”, Javier tells.

With both the Mediterranean ocean and Sierra Nevada mountains within reachable distance from Granada, the zoological life is rich and offers many specimens to bring into research. And with passion triumphing salary, Javier started his studies and mastered in biological sciences with a speciality in Zoology (BSc, MSc) to thereafter obtain his PhD in 1981. Most of his research has been dedicated to the studies of aquatic macroinvertebrates. He also conducted research around the world, not only in Europe (Spain, Poland, Czech Republic), but also in Morocco, Australia, Canada, USA, and Colombia. Since 1998 he is a professor of Zoology at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Granada in Spain. Posteriorly, he focused in the taxonomy and ecology of mayfly larvae from the Sierra Nevada that was the subject of his PhD I presented in 1981.

“I have been within research for more than 45 years! I can hardly remember another life except that”, Javier says.

Using Micro-CT for thorough results

Dr. Prof. Alba-Tercedor uses Micro-CT to scan and thereafter analyze the insects. Micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) is similar to the Computed Axial Tomography (CAT) used for medical purposes. But, while the medical instruments used to have magnifications (voxel size) of several millimeters’ magnitude, micro-CT instruments may obtain voxel size of several microns. Thus, the microtomographic Skyscan 1172 they use in his lab may get images with voxel size up to 480 nanometers (roughly 0.5 µm).

“From a research point of view, microtomography has represented kicking off for a new world. A new way to see, investigate and understand the structure of little animals, in their place and without deformations that dissections implied. Thus, we are describing many unknown structures and their functionality, and we can now observe the hidden life of some insects.”

When scanning, samples rotate and at the same time, X-ray pictures are obtained. For instance, for a 360º rotation with a 0.1º rotation seep will be 3600 images. And at higher magnifications, it is normally necessary to scan the left and right side of the sample, and to be able to scan the whole length it is necessary to scan different longitudinal segments. So, the total number of images increases proportionally.

Afterwards the series of X-ray images need to be reconstructed by software and are converted into transversal slices. These images have noise that need to be eliminated to get clean images that may be reconstructed 3D. And it is possible to observe it in any perspective angle, to cut, or even to travel inside it. The process was describe in detail in one of Javier’s papers from 2014 (Alba-Tercedor, 2014).

“By looking at a visualization it is like looking at a piece of art. As the first discovery of new worlds. Every tool men have invented has already been developed in insects. And when we look carefully inside them, we discover an incredible complexity. They adapt so well to new situations that it is clear that when humankind disappears as a specie from the Earth, insects will continue evolving, dominating our planet, as they do already.”

One of the first to collaborate with Interspectral

“Ten years ago, when we started using the Micro CT-system I was completely frustrated with the results”, Javier says. “I decided to forget I was a full professor and head of the lab and act as a technician dedicating many hours until I could get reasonably good results.”

At the same time, Javier attended the annual user meeting during which he met Dr. Alexander Sasov, CEO of Skyscan company who designed the instruments, and people of his team who develop the software. Thus listening to experiences of other micro-CT users and learning directly from the software engineers, he got involved with them learning how to improve his results, and at the same time support them in improving the software and implementing new options. As a result, pictures and videos he was presenting were awarded in several consecutive meetings and he was encouraged to publish his videos on his YouTube channel. It was about this time Interspectral also reached out to ask for collaboration.

“My collaboration has so far been very smooth and gratifying. It is amazing how my scanned insects look in Inside Explorer! During the years, Interspectral has improved Inside Explorer making it easier to use and to obtain stunning views. This represents a nice tool for education”, Javier says.

Being a highly renown researcher and even a contributor to Hollywood in insect production for motion pictures, he still considers the culminating moment of his career to be brought about every time he has taught to transmit the knowledge and enthusiasm that characterizes him to his students.

“Do not forget that I am a university professor, which implies that I am both a teacher and a researcher. That is why I adore microtomography as long as it is not only a magnificent research tool but in particular, it is very useful in education”

So, Javier. Which is your favourite dataset that has been produced in collaboration with Interspectral?
“This question is impossible for me to answer. It would be as if a mother was asked which of her children she loves the most. I like them all!”

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