The National Science Foundation recently approved both of Harvey Mudd College’s petitions for funding from the Major Research Instrumentation Program this year, totaling more than $400,000 in grants to update research and training equipment in the chemistry department.
“I don’t think anyone’s pulled this off before,” said chemistry professor Gerald Van Hecke, who spearheaded the petition for a new differential scanning calorimeter.
Each academic institution can only apply for two projects to be funded by the research program per year, and competition is strong because these are “big bucks for big things,” said chemistry professor David Vosburg, who led the effort to update HMC’s nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.
A grant of $331,285 will pay for an update to the spectrometer, an instrument similar to the MRIs used for medical diagnostics.
“In an MRI you can distinguish tissues because of their density of hydrogens,” Vosburg said. “The [spectrometer] is just fancier because you get a lot more detail.”
The spectrometer needed an update because the model currently in use is no longer maintained by the manufacturer. If any piece failed, fixing it would be complicated and slow, Vosburg said.
The update includes a 24-tube autosampler: an automated system to introduce samples into the instrument to conduct the tests. This system will reduce the need for human handling, increasing the efficiency of the spectrometer and reducing the risk of it suffering damage from novice users, Vosburg said.
A second program grant of $84,362 will cover the cost of a new Differential Scanning Calorimeter, an instrument that measures the amount of energy needed to change the temperature of a sample. The new calorimeter is faster, more sensitive, and has an improved interface for data handling.
Various research projects conducted by HMC faculty members will profit from the new instruments. Vosburg will use the updated spectrometer in his work creating molecules for medical compounds. Associate Professor of Chemistry Leila Hawkins, who specializes in the chemistry of air pollution, will use both new instruments to analyze aerosol particles.
Besides the intellectual merit of grant applications, the NSF takes into consideration the broader impact of the instrumentation it funds, Van Keche said.
“HMC has a built-in advantage [in the 'broader impact' section of the application] as an institution committed to training undergraduate students,” Van Keche said. He said because of the diversity in HMC’s student body, investments in the college’s instrumentation is more socially impactful than it might be at another school, which is valued by the NSF.
To increase the social impact of the updated spectrometer, the chemistry department made the instrument available to students at Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut and local high school students from the Upward Bound program, which helps low-income and first-generation students obtain higher education. This is possible because the autosampler makes the instrument easier to use.
In its 2018 budget request, President Donald Trump's administration proposed an 11 percent cut to the NSF.
“We are in global competition for scientific excellence and productivity, and when funds are reduced for these endeavors, it is not good for this country,” Van Hecke said. “The president’s budget is only a recommendation to Congress, however, and I hope that the NSF brings forward good arguments to defend itself and that Congress listens.”
Vosburg said reductions in public funding make research more difficult.
“If there’s less public funding, the options are you either get less money, or you look for other sources,” he said. HMC, he said, has reached out to private foundations to fund its summer research program’s stipends and supplies after past reductions in NSF support. “We’re still doing pretty well overall.”