posted February 4, 2010

Major NSF Equipment Grant Assists Multiple Departments

A major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is enabling Hope College to purchase equipment that will support research in multiple departments in the natural and physical sciences.

The college has received $215,180 through the NSF's Major Research Instrumentation program for a scanning electron microscope and a chemical autoanalyzer.  Faculty in biology, chemistry and physics worked together in seeking the grant with research projects already lined up for the new equipment, with additional uses for teaching and research by other programs envisioned.  The instruments should arrive by the end of the spring semester.

"This really has been an interdisciplinary effort," said Dr. Graham Peaslee, who is one of three faculty coordinating the project and is a professor and chairperson of chemistry and a professor of geology/environmental science.  "These instruments will help generations of students here."

According to Peaslee, the scanning electron microscope has been the ultimate instrument for microscopic examination of materials, capable of magnifying objects up to 30,000 times their size and performing an elemental analysis of its composition at the same time, allowing the instrument to be valuable for surface characterization studies of all sorts of materials in geology, environmental science, chemistry, physics, material science and biology.  He noted that every discipline needs to know more about what is happening at the most microscopic levels of their solid samples.

The continuous-flow analysis autoanalyzer is a complementary instrument that will allow for the rapid chemical analysis of large numbers of aqueous samples. It will be used to test for nutrient levels in surface water samples, as well as chemical concentrations in different plants and animals, which again makes it a versatile interdisciplinary instrument.

In addition to Peaslee, the grant's co-authors are Dr. K. Gregory Murray, professor of biology, and Dr. Stephen Remillard, assistant professor of physics.  All three will be using the new instrumentation in on-going research projects being conducted collaboratively with Hope students.

Murray will be using the autoanalyzer to examine the nutritional characteristics of tropical cloud forest fruits, part of his continuing investigation into the interactions of fruit-eating birds and their food plants at Monteverde, Costa Rica.  He will be studying the correspondence between energy-intensive stages in the life-histories of birds--for example, nesting and migration--and the nutritional composition of fruits available over the year.  Fruit-eating birds in the temperate zone time their migration to coincide with the peak availability of fruits, but such data are unavailable for tropical forests, where an even greater proportion of birds feed on fruits.  He notes that the new information will add to the understanding of the complex interactions upon which tropical ecosystems depend and perhaps allow predictions of how the interactions might be altered by climate change.  Murray is also planning to use the instrument in a collaborative project with scientists at 18 other institutions on the impacts of invasive plant species on rates of leaf decomposition and nutrient cycling over much of the eastern and midwestern U.S.

Peaslee will use both the scanning electron microscope and the autoanalyzer in his continuing study of the Lake Macatawa Watershed, seeking to provide data to assist in efforts to remediate the watershed, especially by reducing phosphorous contamination.  His project will focus on determining the origins of polluted sediments in the lake that are currently considered as coming from "non-point" sources.  The new instruments, he said, will be able to identify qualities that will allow researchers to specify where within the watershed the materials originated, the better to enable steps to be taken to prevent such run-off.  He hopes to develop a model that researchers concerned with other watersheds can also use.

Remillard will be using the scanning electron microscope to study superconducting components that have been manufactured by companies that develop superconducting electronics for wireless telecommunications.  One goal is to reveal the quality of the fabrication of the materials used in the components so that the researchers can assess the relationship between the quality and how well the materials perform.

The NSF grant for the scanning electron microscope and autoanalyzer has been funded through the federal economic stimulus package, the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" (ARRA) of 2009.