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Under the microscope: MCC alum talks about his journey from Marshalltown kid to distinguished microbiologist

Dennis Kunkel

Marshalltown Community College alum Dennis Kunkel PhD sits at the scanning electron microscope (SEM). The Marshalltown native has always had an interest in looking at the small world via microscopes. Kunkel has over 40 years of research experience in a number of fields and has won awards for his microphotography work. (Image provided by Mario Garcia)

Dennis Kunkel tends to look at life through a different lens—specifically a lens that is viewed through an electron microscope.

The Marshalltown native has always had an interest in looking at the small world via microscopes. “There are many things all around us that we don’t actually see and they affect our lives greatly,” says Kunkel, who grew up on an acreage on the outer edge of Marshalltown. He was always fascinated with the outdoors and would frequently explore his grandparent’s farm in Haverhill. “I was always interested in plants, and began collecting samples from a pond near our house. I received my first microscope from my parents for Christmas when I was 10, and the rest is history.”

It’s not just microscopes for Kunkel. He is a man of many talents and interests. Kunkel has over 40 years of research experience in a number of fields, including Neurobiology, Botany, Zoology, Entomology, Limnology, Aquatic Biology, Microbiology, and Materials Science. He’s also an award-winning photomicrographer whose images have appeared worldwide in print, film and electronic media.

Kunkel’s journey began at Marshalltown Community College in the late 1960s. He graduated from MCC in June of 1970 with an AS in Biology. Kunkel thought he wanted to go into Oceanography at a university on the west coast, possibly Oregon or Washington, both known for their oceanography programs. “I had heard about class sizes being very large for general education classes so I decided to go to MCC to get some of these courses out of the way, plus take some Biology and Life Science courses that MCC offered.”

After graduating from MCC, Kunkel went to the University of Washington in Seattle, where he received his B.S. in Biology. He later received his PhD in Botany in 1980, with a minor in both microbiology and protozoology.

While Kunkel was finishing his PhD at the University of Washington he worked part time as an electron microscopy technician at the Medical School in the field of Neurobiology. Once he finished his PhD he was not able to get funding to continue research in microbiology. However, Kunkel had the opportunity to work in the medical field and did research in Neurobiology in the Central Nervous System with a professor at the University of Washington for 17 years.

“My wife and I then moved to Hawaii in 1993 where I was given a research position at the University of Hawaii. I researched Cell Biology for two years and Neurobiology in the Peripheral Nervous System for five years.”

Not only does Kunkel research microorganisms, plants and medical subjects, he photographs them, too. This man of many talents has accumulated a lot of light and electron microscopy images from years of doing research and helping students and professors.

Kunkel Spider photo

This is a scanning electron microscope (SEM) view of a male sac spider (Anyphaena dixiana), one of the many photographs that Kunkel has captured throughout his career. (Copyright Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.

“I take over 1,000 electron micrographs each year of all types of interesting biology,” adds Kunkel. “In the mid 80s textbook publishers found out about my microscopy images via some photo competitions I had won (Nikon, Polaroid and Prof Photographers of America). So I started licensing some of my images for textbook use.” In 2000, he started his own science stock photography business, Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.

Kunkel’s work can be found in anywhere from scientific journals to movies and television shows. In the 1995 film, Outbreak, the production used his photos directly in a laboratory scene. The crew was in Kauai photographing some scenes and the production team invited he and his wife on set to view a scene. In the film, Batman and Robin, images of crystals were used for crystal lattices and structures in movie. His images have also been used in publications, science magazines, documentaries, as well as TV shows CSI, Jeopardy, Bones, Oprah, The Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Kunkel credits MCC for helping him get a great start to his fulfilling career.

“Having small classes and dedicated teachers was very important in my learning. The instructors took interest in my curiosity and were available to answer questions and allow me to work outside class time in the labs with light microscopes. From a technical standpoint, MCC allowed me to use more powerful light microscopes and develop my interest in many areas of biology, especially aquatic biology. I learned a great deal about protozoans, algae and aquatic invertebrates while at MCC. Having the equipment to really study the morphology of small creatures led me continue on in marine and freshwater biology.”

Before coming to MCC, Kunkel attended St. Henry’s Middle School and then Lenihan Catholic High School.

“Going from high school to junior college, it’s a big step for anybody. I really needed to have more biology so I could understand what I was going to be working with in later years. I knew MCC Life Sciences were much more detailed. Since MCC was offering these classes, I could live at home so I didn’t have big expenses. And still get the education and an idea of what areas interested me. I could focus my studies and learn about the different areas and avenues of sciences.”

Kunkel and his wife currently reside in Hawaii. He comes back to Iowa to visit his mother who still lives in Marshalltown, near Iowa Avenue West. Kunkel plans retire in four to five years, but says he will never stop working on his craft of taking pictures through microscopes.

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