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NSF awards more than $1.6 million to advance Vassar College’s scientific infrastructure.

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY -- Two new National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to Vassar College totaling more than $1.6 million will make possible a complete electrical upgrade to the college’s largest science facility, as well as the acquisition of a quadrupole time of flight mass spectrometer, an advanced instrument used to determine the exact mass of individual molecules.   

A $1.3 million NSF grant will advance the Olmsted Hall of Biological Sciences, which at 72,000 square feet is Vassar's largest science facility. In addition to housing the college’s biology department, Olmsted Hall has evolved to include several research and training facilities shared by biology, chemistry, computer science, psychology, and environmental science professors to pursue interdisciplinary projects. Olmsted has also emerged as a center of considerable student research; each year approximately 65 students conduct collaborative research there with a biology faculty member, as well as upwards of 25 additional students conducting research with a professor from another science department.

Consider that approximately 55% of the assignable square footage in Olmsted Hall is dedicated to research and research training, and about 68% of the emergency generator load is required to power those research related spaces during a power loss.  The impact from both upgrading the building’s electrical service and replacing its emergency power generator will be considerable for the science research and instruction emerging at Vassar.

“In the past six years Vassar has hired six new tenure-track faculty members in biology, all of whom have vibrant research projects, with specializations in animal behavior, bioinformatics, cell biology, developmental biology, ecosystems ecology, and virology. Revitalizing our facilities to support young faculty members like these, as well as established faculty and future hires, is essential,” explained chemistry professor and associate dean of the faculty Marianne Begemann, who led Vassar’s successful NSF proposal.

“Just as importantly,” Begemann added, “the Olmsted electrical upgrade is crucial to the college’s commitment to teach research by providing students with opportunities to do research. We’re ensuring that our students will have the opportunity to work with faculty mentors on innovative, state-of-the-discipline projects utilizing current equipment, more sophisticated instruments, and expanded computational power.”

Chemistry professor Teresa Garrett will use Vassar’s new quadrupole time of flight mass spectrometer to expand her lipids research, analyzing, for example, the lipid composition of a number of systems, including bacteria, anemones, and viruses. At the same time, Garrett explains that the instrument funded by her nearly $390,000 NSF grant will make possible an array of other investigations by Vassar professors, ranging from biochemistry and environmental biology to microbiology, cell biology, and organic synthesis.

Mass spectrometry is a powerful tool for characterizing the molecules in a complex mixture.  For example, “A single cell can have more than 1000 different lipid molecules, many of which have distinct masses that we can use our new instrument to detect. And when we couple our new spectrometer with the high performance separation systems routinely used in our department, the number of molecules that we can identify will increase immensely,” Garrett said. “Another beauty of this instrument is that it can determine the structure of a molecule. Individual molecules of a given mass are broken apart in the ‘collision cell’, and the mass of each piece is precisely measured. All of this data can then be used to provide the molecular formula that will determine what the molecule is. What’s really exciting is that the spectrometer will not only allow us to verify the structure of known molecules, but to discover new structures as well.”

Vassar’s new mass spectrometer will provide chemistry professor Christopher Smart another robust way to study fullerenes, a recently discovered class of organic molecules composed completely of carbon as hollow, closed cage structures. Functionalization of the fullerene’s novel surface produces new molecules that may have applications as medicines, electronics materials, as well as model compounds for the investigation of carbon nanotube surfaces.  And the new instrument will aid the joint research of chemist Eric Eberhardt and biologist Jodi Schwarz, helping them to identify molecular changes that occur when a marine symbiont organism lives within the cells of a coral host. In particular they are examining the results of "coral bleaching," a more frequent phenomenon caused by increasing ocean temperatures, where the breakdown of the host-symbiont interaction has devastating consequences on an entire reef ecosystem.  

Teresa Garrett also intends for Vassar’s new advanced research tool to be a broader resource for peers at nearby colleges. “We anticipate fruitful collaborations with researchers at Marist College, Bard College, and SUNY-New Paltz,” said Garrett.  Moreover, in her proposal she asserted that, “By engaging undergraduate scientists with this state-of-the-art analytical equipment in research and classroom laboratories, future researchers and life science professionals will be prepared to directly participate in this technology driven era.”

Vassar’s new grant to upgrade Olmsted Hall is provided by the NSF’s Academic Research Infrastructure Program: Recovery and Reinvestment (ARI-R²), with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Vassar will acquire its new quadrupole time of flight mass spectrometer with a grant from the NSF’s Major Research Instrumentations program.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, November 1, 2010