By Jim Barlow At first glance, scientists struggling with the images on a computer screen at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology late last month could have been mistaken for astrophysicists speculating about a newly discovered neutron star. Their questions were basic: "What are we looking at?" "Has this ever been seen before?" Answers such as "I don't really know" and "Not according to the literature" deepened the mystery. A white spot on one image heightened their speculation. They were looking at an early stage of life - not at X-ray pulses emitted by a dying star. The mystery image was a 5-day-old embryo inside a chicken egg. It was being viewed for the first time by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The white spot, they speculated, perhaps was the chick's heart. The excitement of scientific discovery was clear as Clint Potter and Carl Gregory, both researchers at the Beckman Institute and at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, met with Jo Ann Eurell, a professor of veterinary biosciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine, to view the chicken egg through the world's first NWebScope server at the UI's Biomedical Magnetic Resonance Laboratory (BMRL). The Internet server allows computer users with browsers to link up from anywhere to an MRI machine and do experiments. The researchers were preparing for Project May Day, a 21-day real-time experiment beginning April 15 that will deliver the miracle of embryonic development via the World Wide Web to primary and secondary schools. Students at Champaign's Countryside School and Central High School, Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club, Wiley Elementary School, University Primary School, Urbana's Middle and High schools, and Teutopolis High School will log onto their computers at specific times each day. "We hope to get the students excited about the process of discovery," said project coordinator Potter, who conceived Project May Day to demonstrate the potential of remote instrument control through standard web browsers. "The project will, hopefully, evolve during the entire month of April as we learn from the students and as we refine our own technique. This is new territory for all of us." The ambitious project involves several researchers as well as Project SEARCH, a UI undergraduate science outreach program, and NCSA's Resource for Science Education program. The BMRL, Beckman Institute, College of Veterinary Medicine and Illinois Natural History Survey are all contributing. Chip Bruce, a professor in the department of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education, will direct an evaluation of Project May Day. The young students' daily involvement actually will help the scientists in their MRI documentation of the step-by-step development of a chick - considered a good model for overall species development. A chick grows quickly, hatching in 21 days. "Currently there are no reports in the scientific literature of MRI of a developing chick," Eurell said. "We hope to visualize new information about this process with this study. As MRI technology continues to develop, the development of other species may be followed using this non-invasive procedure." Previous documentation of chicken development involved destroying the egg at various stages. With MRI, an egg is undisturbed; researchers can capture images at any time. The eggs are kept in an incubator when they are not under observation. MRI is a non-invasive diagnostic technique that has been used extensively in medicine to view internal parts of the human body. Unlike X-rays or surgery, the high-quality images produced by MRI carry no known risk to patients. The technology in recent years has been extended to a variety of disciplines, from agronomy to food to materials to neuroscience. It allows researchers to study internal dynamics without disturbing processes. "Children will be able to observe the wonder of a chick's development inside the egg, without harming or disturbing it, and college students and research scientists can learn more about embryonic development," said BMRL Director Paul C. Lauterbur, a pioneer of MRI technology. "Each can profit at the appropriate level by simple observations and by making and testing hypotheses as they control the imaging process, using the same developing egg but bringing different levels of knowledge and insights to their experiments. Our laboratory will learn how to improve our software and interfaces, and out training methods, so as to carry out future research projects more effectively." Potter and Gregory, who designed the BMRL's server that connected the MRI to the World Wide Web, have been setting up the control parameters that will allow other researchers and students to view the egg and manipulate their observations effectively. Among the earliest challenges was simply realizing what they were seeing. "We will see changes not seen before in the yolk and tissues," Eurell said. "We are going into this with a great deal of curiosity about what we will see." Armed with their initial insights, Eurell's team met Wednesday with teachers from the participating schools to train them on using their browser software to view the egg and manipulate the MRI images. Each day, the students will view a prepared image to guide them into that day's session. Then they will be able to ask their own questions and seek answers. They will document what they do in special on-line WebNotebooks being designed by Barbara Fossum, director of the Beckman Institute's Visualization Lab. As with any scientific experiment, there are risks. "Things could break. We could have problems with the network," Eurell said. "This will be an adventure to everyone. We will be developing new techniques. We will be changing the available technology. This is truly a Web event." Anyone can check the progress of the project by pointing a browser to the correct URL (http://vizlab.beckman.uiuc.edu/WWL). As for the newborn chicks, they will be adopted.