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Grant Gives VMI Access to Lab Equipment

FullTextImage/img/@altMaj. Pieter deHart, seen here working on research to determine the role that the praying mantis plays in area ecosystems, expects to use the isotope ratio mass spectrometer to continue his research. -- VMI File Photo by John Robertson IV.

LEXINGTON, Va. Aug. 23, 2013 – VMI faculty and cadets will soon have easy access to an isotope ratio mass spectrometer, greatly enhancing their ability to do advanced scientific research.

Maj. Pieter deHart, assistant professor of biology, is named as a co-principal investigator on the National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation grant, “Acquisition of a Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer for enhancing undergraduate research and training across the sciences at Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute.”

“This grant was truly a collaborative one,” said deHart, who worked with principal investigator Bill Hamilton, W&L professor of biology, and three other co-principal investigators from the W&L faculty.

The $314,593 grant was awarded to W&L, where the instrument will be housed. It is expected to arrive sometime this fall.

DeHart, whose research topics have included both mantids and coyotes, said that he’s been sending samples requiring isotope analysis to outside labs in Colorado, Maryland, and California, a process that is both costly and time-consuming.

“We don’t have [any lab] in the state of Virginia that allows for the submission of external samples for isotope analysis,” he explained. “This gives us something in-house where we can have a close-knit relationship with our samples from start to finish.”

DeHart said that cadets in particular will benefit from being able to see the results of their research immediately, instead of waiting days or weeks for results from an outside lab. With such capability close to home, deHart envisions an ongoing demand.

“I’m sure it’s going to be used nonstop from the time it’s set up until the time it needs to get replaced someday,” he said.

DeHart explained that isotope analysis is useful in a variety of scientific disciplines, including biology, chemistry, geology, and even archaeology. For example, deHart noted, a chemist, such as Maj. Dan Harrison, could use the mass spectrometer in research projects to aid in the production and analysis of new compounds with possible applications for renewable energy.

The peripherals accompanying the mass spectrometer allow for versatility, so that solid, liquid, and gas samples can be analyzed. The peripherals will also permit analysis of both organic and inorganic compounds.

“There’s a huge array of possibilities to pair with this machine,” said deHart.

What’s more, deHart added, the mass spectrometer and peripherals will be available for use by students and faculty from neighboring colleges and universities.

“I see this as becoming a regional hub for isotope analysis,” he commented. “This is the only [mass spectrometer] in Virginia that’s collaborative, multi-school, [and] focused on undergraduate research.”

Other co-principal investigators are Robert Humston and Larry Hurd, W&L biology, and Lisa Greer, W&L geology.

–Mary Price