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NSF Grant Funds Replacement Electron Microscope at W&L

An award of $355,319 from the National Science Foundation will allow Washington and Lee University to replace its much-used but outdated scanning electron microscope with a state-of-the art version.

“The existing machine works well for teaching purposes,” said Jeffrey Rahl, assistant professor of geology at W&L and principal investigator for the grant application, “but in terms of producing publishable cutting edge research, it’s too old. The new equipment will have capabilities that are much more powerful than our current microscope.”

The grant application describes the new variable pressure scanning electron microscope (SEM) as a powerful analytical tool that will enable detailed analyses of materials too small to be resolved with standard light microscopes.

Rahl noted that the sciences at Washington and Lee have a strong record of involving undergraduates in important scientific research. “We need the new SEM for faculty to fully realize their potential in existing lines of research as well as launching new endeavors that enhance the training of undergraduate researchers. There are some great opportunities across the sciences for W&L students to get involved with really exciting research that’s pushing things forward and could potentially lead to publishable work,” he said.

At least nine courses across four departments will use the SEM in laboratory courses, including geology, physics and engineering, chemistry and biology. Rahl expressed his appreciation for the help he received from the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations as well as from faculty who wrote descriptions of their research and teaching applications. They included Ken Van Ness, in physics and engineering, the co-principal investigator for the application, who wrote about his research into the characterization of novel polymers. In the geology department, Lisa Greer wrote about her research into climate change and coral reefs, and David Harbor described his study of weathering rates and landscape evolution. Erich Uffelman from the chemistry department wrote about how he will use the new SEM in his chemical analysis of materials in art paintings.

Newly-developed areas of research that require the new SEM technology include Rahl’s own research on zircon fission-track dating of exhumation in the Appalachians, Robert Humston’s study of fish ecology in the biology department, and Dan Mazilu’s research of the characterization of anti-reflection coatings in the physics and engineering department.

“I’m very excited about the research and educational impact the new SEM will have at Washington and Lee,” said Rahl. “It’s going to make a huge impact on our curriculum and I think it will get a lot of use because it’s a really powerful and flexible tool.”

The new SEM is expected to arrive on campus early next year. It will initially be placed in the Science Center, but the long term plan is for it to form part of a suite of instruments in the planned Integrative Quantitative Science Center (IQ Center), which will promote student and faculty collaborations both within and between departments at W&L and at several neighboring institutions.

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