New Science Equipment To Serve Multiple Projects, Students

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A new piece of equipment that can measure concentrations in the smallest amounts could have a large impact on SUNY Oswego’s research, ability to attract top-quality students and chances of recruiting the best science faculty.

A $246,414 National Science Foundation major research instrumentation grant will allow the college to purchase an inductively coupled plasma source quadrupole mass spectrometer, or ICP-MS. The equipment will allow scientists in several disciplines to measure minute amounts of elements with great accuracy and small samples required, said Paul Tomascak, the grant’s project director.

“In one analysis, you can measure 40 elements on the periodic table in a matter of seconds,” said Tomascak of the earth sciences faculty. “You have higher sensitivity yet with higher precision for essentially every element.”

An ICP-MS measures ions of elements dissolved in acid solutions. The ICP torch is an argon plasma “as hot as the outside of the sun,” Tomascak said. The plasma instantly ionizes dissolved elements, allowing the mass spectrometer to measure them.

This is cutting-edge technology that will impress potential faculty yet is user-friendly enough that undergraduates will gain experience with it in classes or research projects, Tomascak said.

“With this equipment, studying lead concentrations in drinking water is falling-off-a-log easy,” he noted.

Also remarkable, Tomascak said, is the wide range of science faculty who will use the ICP-MS for research and teaching. They include members of the biological sciences, chemistry and earth sciences departments studying projects ranging from water toxins to metals in insulin to exploring the formation of the earth.

Tomascak believes the new mass spectrometer could help with other projects such as studying air pollution, archeological classification and the Oswego Children’s Study on the effects of toxic pollutants.

By any measure, Tomascak said Oswego’s success in landing NSF major instrument grants in the past two years is outstanding. “Each campus is only allowed two proposals per year, and it’s a very competitive process,” he explained. “We’ve gone four for four in our most recent proposals from this campus, which says a lot about our collected level of expertise and the quality of research.”

Jack Gelfand, SUNY Oswego’s director of research administration and development, attributed this impressive feat to collaboration and opportunities for undergraduates.

“In order to build a strong proposal, you have to group enough people together so there are enough activities to compete with major universities. We’ve had the directors of these projects go around and talk to enough people to develop a good enough story that makes the case,” Gelfand said.

“One of the most attractive features of this campus is that we always use the instruments for undergraduate research and classes,” with greater access than most colleges, Gelfand said. Obtaining major instruments provides a ripple effect, making it possible to develop compelling projects that can attract more research funding, more teaching scientists and more aspiring student scientists, he added.