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Lab Improvements: National Science Foundation Grant is Instrumental

Assistant Professor Marisa Buzzeo ’01With the acquisition of a cluster of new spectroscopic instrumentation, there is an elevated sense of excitement in the chemistry department this academic year. The story began in the summer of 2009 when the department’s faculty prepared a proposal for a National Science Foundation grant under the Major Research Instrumentation Program (MRI-R2/Recovery and Reinvestment), a program aimed at improving the quality and scope of research and research training through the acquisition of shared instrumentation. Although such an application could have been made by a single faculty member, the department opted to work together on the proposal and target instrumentation that would be beneficial to everyone—from faculty to students, both in research and teaching.

“It speaks to the strength and cooperation of the department that we did this together,” says Assistant Professor Marisa Buzzeo ’01, who is the principal investigator on the proposal. “The impact on the students is that much larger when the equipment can be used by all of the research faculty and their groups.” The co-PIs on the proposal are Assistant Professor John Magyar, associate professors Dina Merrer and Christian Rojas, and Senior Lecturer Alison Williams.

The official letter was received on April 19 informing the department it had been approved for a grant in the amount of $166,668. The new instrumentation arrived on campus before the fall semester: three high-resolution, ultraviolet-visible-near-infrared (UV-Vis-NIR) spectrometer, a high-resolution Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) spectrometer, and a fluorescence spectrometer. All three spectrometers measure how molecules interact with light. Both the UV-Vis-NIR and the FT-IR spectrometers report on the absorption of incoming light by molecules. The fluorescence spectrometer, records the emission of light by molecules after their exposure to light of a different energy. The equipment will be used by all research-active members of the department and their research students in biological physical, environmental bioinorganic, synthetic organic, and physical organic chemistry.

“These instruments will now be used for experiments that were previously done with instruments from the early 1990s and will enable us to explore new areas of research and incorporate new types of experiments into the teaching labs that the previous equipment was not capable of performing,” Buzzeo says. Expanding their research programs, and thus the type of funding they seek, the acquisition can also serve to attract the best prospective faculty to the College. She also notes that members of the department maintain an excellent balance between teaching and research. “Our students are exposed to learning science both through a very intense classroom experience and participation in hands-on research,” she says.

“Being able to do research in a department of our size means that our students get tremendous amounts of experience with instrumentation, as well as lots of mentoring from the faculty members and peers within their research groups,” she explains. “This can shape a student’s undergraduate exposure to the sciences and can help them realize they want to go into the sciences as a profession.”

State-of-the-art instrumentation can also serve as a significant motivation for students with an interest in the sciences to attend Barnard. Working with this cutting-edge equipment both prepares students for graduate school and makes them more desirable candidates for the best programs. “This new instrumentation,” Buzzeo says, “will have a significant impact on the future of our department.”