In high school science classes in Pennsylvania, Mark Smith used just a standard, tabletop microscope to magnify the samples of minerals and rocks that would inspire him to become a geologist.
But in his free time, the teenager was helping to build a much more powerful device — a macro photography system that could compete with the best on the market to produce ultra-high resolution, full-color images of the tiniest things on Earth. His ideas and machinery were part of the first prototype of the Macropod, developed for the U.S. Army Institute of Public Health to capture images of insects in the field.
Years later, the Mansfield resident is still building on that technology and finding new applications for it through his small Tolland company, Macroscopic Solutions.
NASA bought one of his Macropods to study microscopic organisms that form on glass. The Department of Agriculture bought one to image wasps that keep pest populations in check. More have gone to the U.S. Geological Survey, Smithsonian Institution, Harvard University and a dozen other colleges, to shoot everything from beetles and butterflies to arrowheads and microchips.
And he shares as many of the photos as he can — with communities that follow him on Facebook, Reddit and Flickr, and soon on Science Source, a website that provides scientific images to the public.
“It might push a lot more young people to pursue degrees in science later on if the’re using a tool like this,” he said. “A lot of people who see these images don’t have a clue that what they’re seeing in front of their faces actually looked the way it does until our system captures it.”
Brett Ratcliffe, curator of insects at the University of Nebraska State Museum, said he was floored by the level of detail he could achieve when he began photographing his scarab beetles with the camera.
“A layperson would have the same reaction. ‘My god, that’s just incredible,’ ” he said. “So much of nature is hidden from us because we don’t have the capacity to see the minute details with the naked eye unless it’s magnified.”
Smith and his co-owner and wife, biologist-geologist Annette Evans — who works out of research and advisory firm Nerac — are now working to expand the Macropod’s use into territories familiar, like earth sciences, and unchartered, like advanced manufacturing.
They say the same technology that allows an entomologist see, for example, the hairs on a mosquito’s wing can help a mining company calculate the concentration of gold in a sample of soil, or an engineer to find minuscule flaws in the barrel of a gun.
And the Macropod, ranging in cost from $14,000 to $40,000, does this while being entirely portable and less expensive than traditional microscopes.
Several clients said their old systems cost $50,000 to $60,000 — middle-of-the-road for such equipment — but created lower-quality images and required more guesswork to use than their Macropods.
“The idea is I could give you a Macropod and in an hours’ time, you could be taking images like this,” Evans said. Insect photos cover the walls of her work space like movie posters: close-ups of bees, flies and mosquitoes, the stars.
But getting people to try the device can be a challenge, Smith said.
USDA entomologist Matt Buffington, a photographer, said he’s wary of new technology and was shocked that the Macropod could take publication-quality shots with ease.
“This is something I’d never seen before,” he said. “I didn’t even think it was actually possible.”
“That’s the hardest part when an innovation comes out,” he said. “Just trying to convince someone that what you have is better than the traditional technology that’s been branded so well.”
The USDA’s Systematic Entomology Lab bought one of the devices a year ago.
To date, most clients have been scientists using the technology as it was originally intended — to take stunning macro photos of the natural world.
Smith helped developed it with his childhood neighbor, Tony Gutierrez, who was a chief molecular biologist at the U.S. Army Institute of Public Health.
While Smith left for college and then abroad to research earthquake activity in Taiwan, he remembered the technology and thought it could be helpful for rock samples.
So in 2013, as a geoscience graduate student at the University of Connecticut, he developed a business plan for the device, licensed the Macropod from the Army and competed in UConn’s Innovation Quest entrepreneurship contest. He won first place and $15,000.
The company also won $10,000 from Central Connecticut State University and is close to paying back about $30,000 in personal loans, from the families of Smith and his former partner Daniel Saftner, who co-founded the company.
Four years later, the equipment has changed dramatically.
They made it portable, increased its magnification 100 fold, and combined it with 3-D modeling software, among other advancements.
When Dartmouth University asked Smith for help working with drill cores — cylindrical samples of earth — he developed an automated system for photographing such objects. He’s also working to reduce reflections from flash equipment, something USDA entomologist Matt Buffington has noticed in the shiny, black armor of some of his wasp specimens.
“A lot of times, with these big companies, you’re left on your own. You’re kind of your own problem-solver because once they sell you the unit, it’s like, ‘Thanks.’ They’re done, they got what they wanted,” he said. “But I think (Smith) is fascinated by the process.”
That’s part of the reason Macroscopic Solutions offers in-house imaging services — instead of selling researchers an entire kit, the company can take photos for them.
That’s how the company came to photograph a live baby Hawaiian bobtail squid as it swam in saltwater. The image, shot in biologist Spencer Nyholm’s lab at UConn, made Smith a 2016 and 2017 Wellcome BBC Image of the Year Award finalist.
And it’s how Smith came to shoot a beetle that was collected in 1832 by Charles Darwin.
Smith photographed the Darwinilus sedarisi — scientifically named for both Darwin and the writer David Sedaris — in November 2014, just a year after he launched his company. The specimen had been considered lost until it resurfaced in storage at the Natural History of Museum in London that year.
His image was among the first ever taken of the little green and blue beetle.
“That kind of takes the cake,” Smith said.