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3D printing explores a ‘Wonder of Pollen’ in new partnership between the University of York and RHS Garden Harlow Carr

Posted on 23 May 2024

The world of pollen is being explored in a new way, using experimental 3D printing techniques in a pioneering partnership between the University of York and RHS Garden Harlow Carr.

A new exhibition at RHS Garden Harlow Carr will bring visitors into pollen’s microscopic world

A brand new exhibition on display throughout the grounds of RHS Garden Harlow Carr features research from the University of York, as visitors to one of Yorkshire’s finest gardens are welcomed into a microscopic world of wonder.

Pollen is amazing. It is beautiful, nearly indestructible and unless it’s making you sneeze, you might not give it much thought. But it is so much more than a pesky allergen. Pollen can shed light on stories from history and honey to hay fever and horticulture. It is critically important in our lives, the natural world, and the sciences which study it.

Microscopic wonder

The new exhibition at RHS Garden Harlow Carr will bring visitors into pollen’s microscopic world to help reveal the roles it plays in ours. With fascinating images and 3D-printed pollen models, researchers hope it will help visitors discover the wonder of pollen in new and memorable ways.

Displayed across eight panels throughout the garden, the 3D pollen models are produced using an experimental technique called confocal laser scanning microscopy, which takes dozens of thin cross-section images through a pollen grain then uses them to reconstruct a model of its surface. 

Accessible research

These surface models can then be 3D-printed. The exhibition also showcases ultra-high-magnification images from scanning electron microscopy, developed for the PalDat project by the Society for the Promotion of Palynological Research in Austria.

The research has been made accessible and inclusive for all ages. Dr Oliver Wilson and Professor Robert Marchant, from the University of York, have worked with the interpretation and education teams at RHS Harlow Carr to develop the material for the exhibition as well as a series of workshops for primary school children.

Tactile modelling

Dr Wilson said: “Despite its beauty and importance, pollen can be far too easily overlooked. This exhibition, with its amazing images, tactile 3D models and fascinating stories, aims to change that. I first started developing 3D pollen models as a way of helping communicate my research on the ancient history of Brazil’s rainforests, but they’re a fantastic gateway into a whole microscopic world of wonders.

“Pollen is sprinkled throughout scientific research and the natural world so the exhibition covers an incredible range of topics. We hope that it’ll help you think about pollen - and its outsized importance in a whole new way.”

Fundamental learning

This exhibition is a collaboration between the University of York and RHS Harlow Carr, supported in part by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Kirstie Blything, Education Manager at RHS Harlow Carr said: “From new school workshops, adult learning talks and interpretation boards, this project has created exciting new ways to explore sharing the story of pollen with all of our Garden visitors. The story of pollen is fascinating and fundamental to shaping our existence.”

The exhibition runs until September. Normal garden admission applies, it is free for RHS members.

Further information:

A talk called ‘The Wonder of Pollen’ to tie in with the exhibition takes place on the 8th of June at RHS Harlow Carr.

The special session will shed light on the wonders of pollen’s miniature world - covering 450 million years of evolution, plants from across the tree of life and landscapes from around the planet. Book here for The Wonder of Pollen.

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