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NSF Grant Places W&L at Forefront of Undergraduate Schools

Washington and Lee University’s chemistry department has received a grant from the National Science Foundation for the addition of a new mass spectrometer.

According to W&L chemistry professor Lisa Alty, the new instrument, which costs slightly more than $280,000, will enhance both research and undergraduate classes.

Alty said that while she expects the new spectrometer to be standard in every chemistry department in about 10 years, the NSF grant means that W&L will be one of the very few liberal arts colleges to have the instrument.

“We’ve wanted this instrument for about two years,” she said. “All the research institutions have them, but there are very few colleges like W&L that have one without also having a graduate program in chemistry and biochemistry.

“One of the things we’ve worked very hard on is having state-of-the-art technology to do analyses of molecules and this is another piece of that whole picture,” she said. “I was delighted to hear my application was successful and I think it was a matter of my being in the right place at the right time.”

The instrument’s full name is a liquid chromatograph electrospray ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometer. It is more often identified by its initials – ESI-TOF LC/MS.

On the research side, Alty said the instrument will mean that faculty will be able to conduct some aspects of their research at W&L. “Marcia France and Erich Uffelman, both chemistry professors, have been sending samples away to bigger institutions that have these instruments to get data from them for probably 10 years,” said Alty. “Now they won’t have to do that. Bill Hamilton, associate professor of biology, will also use the mass spectrometer in his research.”

Alty said that over the last few years the technology of the mass spectrometer has become more user-friendly and the interfaces have become more student-friendly. “All the hundred or so students that come through first-year chemistry will use the instrument and will get a tutorial in the lab on what it does and why it’s important. Then all the chemistry and biochemistry majors will use it extensively in the spectroscopy lab,” she said.

The chemistry department currently has a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer which enables researchers to look at small molecules. “The molecules we’ll be able to look at with this new instrument are much larger,” said Alty. “To show the difference of scale of the size of molecules we’ll be able to measure: with our current instrument, we measure molecules from the size of a marble to a baseball. With this new mass spectrometer we’ll be able to measure molecules up to the size of a car.”

The instrument’s software will also calculate molecular formulae that match the mass data so that investigators can determine the structures of the molecules. “We’re going to be able to get an exact measurement of mass. You can think of it as being a scale for molecules,” said Alty. “We’ll get a number at the end of the run that will say this molecule weighs a certain amount, and it will be a really exact measurement of how much it weighs.”

The ESI-TOF LC/MS will provide data for nine participating faculty members at W&L and Virginia Military Institute, as well as research data and training for the undergraduate students who work with them.