Massey University researcher recognised for 3D-printed pollen models

Massey lecturer Katherine Holt's accurate model pollen granules, thousands of times their real size, let students get a ...

Warwick Smith/Fairfax NZ

Massey lecturer Katherine Holt’s accurate model pollen granules, thousands of times their real size, let students get a look at the pollen from all angles.

Gargantuan pollen coming from a 3D printer may sound like the mad science experiment from the opening minutes of a B-grade horror movie, but that’s the project earning a Massey University researcher recognition.

Massey University senior lecturer Katherine Holt has developed a set of accurate, 3D-printed, scale models of pollen, 2000 to 3000 times the actual size, to use as teaching aides in university science classes.

She is one of three Manawatu finalists in this year’s New Zealand Innovation Awards, along with Palmerston North’s Fonterra Research and Development Centre, for infant formula that more closely mimics breast milk, and the Ngati Rangi Trust, for an innovative community development programme in the Mt Ruapehu area.

The recognition was good, but she also felt proud for representing academia in the awards, she said.

“As I can see I’m the only finalist from a university, the rest are all commercial businesses.”

While teaching student labs at Massey, Holt found students were struggling to identify pollen under the microscope.

Under the lens the complex 3D shapes of the pollen granules could only be seen in one 2D slice, and many students ended up asking her for help identifying the same bit of pollen they’d correctly named a moment before.

“The same granule looks really different from different angles, so I’ve always wanted something to help improve their recognition.”

Part of her pollen research had involved scanning cross-sections of pollen grains, that were then stitched together in a computer model.

“I thought, why not take this one step further and print them out in 3D? What surprised me is that it’s a really simple idea but no one had actually done it before.”

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Massey engineering student Ben Pedersen helped her find the best materials and processes to use in making the models, and now Holt had been using them in her classes all year.

She said being able to handle and examine the granules from any angle had made learning to recognise the different types of pollen much easier.

“There’s still a few imperfections to iron out [in the process], but the goal is giving each student their own set. It only costs between 20 cents and $1 per model for the plastic. That’s peanuts really.”

The same basic process could help students across a wide range of fields, and at all levels of study, get hands on in ways they couldn’t previously, she said.

“Anything on the microscopic scale can be blown up, while anything really large, like a mammoth skeleton, can be scaled down. Just imagine every high school could have their own pollen models or even their own replica moa bones.”

– Stuff

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