NSF awards Lawrence, UW-Fox grant for chemistry instrument

Dylan Reed-Maxfield

The National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation Program has awarded a $435,000 grant for the purc+hase of a new chemistry instrument to be used by students and researchers at Lawrence and the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.
The machine, called a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, or NMR, samples compounds and can be used to determine their molecular structure. Stefan Debbert, assistant professor of chemistry, compared the functioning of the NMR to that of an MRI machine in a hospital. The MRI, or magnetic resonance imager, actually functions by the same mechanism as an NMR.
“Having information about the protons in a molecule can help us piece together what the molecule looks like … what’s bound to what [and] architecturally how it looks,” he explained.
The NMR will be housed in its own room in the basement of Science Hall, replacing a similar but outdated machine that Lawrence has used for two decades. “Professor [Jerrold] Lokensgard has done a remarkable job of keeping [the old NMR] working, but it’s on its last legs,” said Debbert.
Debbert said that many professors would like to use NMR in their labs and research far more than they do, but the current machine simply cannot process samples quickly enough – students would spend too much time waiting in line while others used the machine. He made particular reference to the organic chemistry classes he teaches, which usually have a full enrollment of 60 students.
A critical feature of the new NMR that will address this problem is an autosampler that robotically feeds sample material into the instrument. After an initial setup, the machine will be able to run whole sets of samples unattended.
Debbert stressed the importance of access to high-end equipment for students going to graduate and medical school. “This way, students will have a lot more experience with hands-on data analysis and setting up these experiments,” he said.
In addition to Lawrence students and professors, the new NMR will serve UW-Fox, a two-year public institution whose students have not had access to such an instrument in the past.
Another feature of the new NMR will also help facilitate its use by two universities. “Because everything is online and the autosampler can be controlled remotely through the internet,” said Debbert, “they [UW-Fox] will be able to drive three miles, set up a bunch of samples, and then … access the data from their campus.”
According to Debbert, the NSF’s evaluation of the grant proposal was based both on its “intellectual merit” and its “broader impact.” In support of the first criterion, the proposal referred to the research of several Lawrence and UW-Fox professors, including Debbert’s own work on synthetic compounds that may become pharmaceutical drugs.
The cooperation between the two schools was judged to be highly significant for the broader impact of the grant, as the National Science Foundation called it “an extraordinary example of a public two-year and private four-year university in a mutually beneficial partnership.”
Debbert said he hoped for “further collaborations” with UW-Fox to result from shared use of the instrument.