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$587,000 NSF grant allows ISU to purchase spectrometers, enhances research capabilities

August 3, 2007
ISU Marketing and Communications

A $587,410 grant from the National Science Foundation will allow Idaho State University to build a new laboratory equipped with sophisticated measuring instruments. This will allow researchers from many disciplines to complete a myriad of new analyses that before ISU would have had to contract out.

"This really puts ISU on the research map and the money we normally would have sent out to another university to get work done will stay here,” said the grant's principal investigator Herb Maschner, PhD, ISU anthropology professor, “and ISU researchers will have access to relatively high-tech research capabilities.”

The official title of the grant is “MRI: Acquisition of Mass Spectrometers and Related Equipment to Create the ISU Interdisciplinary Lab for Elemental and Isotopic Analysis.” The grant allows ISU to purchase mass spectrometers and to set up a new laboratory in the Pocatello Business Park.

The creation of this laboratory is an important step for ISU, said Larry Ford, PhD, interim ISU chief research officer.

“We hope this is the start of a scientific instrument cluster of laboratories that can benefit the broad cross section of researchers we have at ISU,” Ford said. “The cooperative use of these expensive scientific instruments is important. It makes a lot more sense to have a cluster of instruments with experts who know how to run them that are accessible to the whole research community, rather than have them in isolated laboratories. It should allow ISU to be more competitive when applying for new grants, too.”

Mass spectrometers are used to examine the elemental composition of rocks, soils, plants, minerals, bones, water and a broad spectrum of other items. Researchers in the biological sciences, anthropology, geology, chemistry, ecology and other disciplines will use in a broad range of applications.

“This instrument will put us on par with other research institutions in the region,” Maschner said. “It increases our capabilities and allows us to do some work with outside institutions. We anticipate we will receive all kinds of contracts for the analysis of water, soil and air quality.”

A spectrometer can be used to examine minute amounts of elements, down to ratios of one part to trillions, Maschner said.

“This allows us to work on everything from contamination issues in water and on land, to completing sophisticated analysis of museum artifacts,” he noted.

The spectrometers detect the ratios of the different isotopes of an element. Isotopes are molecules of an element, such as carbon, that vary in terms of the number of neutrons they have, but not electrons.

“Because isotopes vary in mass and size, you can simply measure the ratio of different isotopes of an element and glean some important insight on the physiology of an organism,” said Matt Germino, PhD, a co-investigator on the grant and ISU biological sciences assistant professor and researcher. “For example, anthropologists or ecologists can make use of isotopic ratios of elements like carbon or nitrogen to determine where an organism received its food.”

Germino will use the spectrometers for his studies on invasive plants to determine what water source, shallow or deep, the invasive plants are using.

“This type of information is really useful to see which native plants might best fit the soil-resource needs to compete with invasive plants,” Germino said.

The laboratory is expected to be running by spring semester 2008. The ISU anthropology and biological sciences departments have each been able to attract and hire new faculty members who are experts in using the mass spectrometer.

“This laboratory is designed to bring researchers from different disciplines together,” Germino said. “We expect the facility to be self-sustaining in a relatively short period of time, and by having it at a neutral, accessible site, it will foster interdisciplinary work at this university.”


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