ONU’s investment in technology opens doors to new chemistry research.
In the field of chemistry where scientists study the smallest particles on the planet, bigger is definitely better.
Ohio Northern University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry got a lot bigger this fall with the recent installation of brand new cutting-edge scientific instrumentation, the Bruker Avance III 400 MHz Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer (NMR). This impressive piece of engineering will greatly improve the scope and quality of research done at ONU and provide students with even greater opportunities to gain experience vital to their field.
While it might seem trivial to suggest that having the biggest and best equipment somehow translates to bragging rights, among chemists it certainly seems to be the case.
“Chemistry departments rate themselves on the quality of their NMR facility. It is the quintessential piece of equipment for chemistry, and it is almost always the most expensive piece of equipment,” says Dr. Brian Myers, associate professor of chemistry. “So yeah, bigger is better.”
Myers isn’t kidding about it being the most expensive piece of equipment. The new device cost a quarter of a million dollars, and as shocking as that number might initially be, investing in an NMR of this caliber makes sense. The new instrument replaces a machine that lasted 24 years before finally dying last spring. With its next generation technology compared to its predecessor, the new one should last even longer.
Click to launch photo gallery showing the NMR's installation.
More important than cost or even longevity is the impact the new NMR will have on the teaching and research mission of ONU.
The NMR itself is a complex machine that uses a superconducting electromagnet to create a concentrated magnetic field around a sample a scientist wants to study. The machine then bombards the sample with radio frequencies, which causes the atoms in the molecules, specifically the nuclei of the atoms, to absorb energy. Different atoms absorb different frequencies, so scientists are able to determine which atoms are which. It is very much like its sister technology, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), but for atoms instead of people. It is incredibly important for all kinds of chemistry research because it is the single most effective way to validate the composition of a molecule. So whether a researcher is working with a sample that they need to make sure is pure, or if a synthetic chemist is trying to prove that she did indeed make the a new material she set out to make (for example a new plastic/polymer, or a new drug-like molecule), NMR is vital for validation of the result.
“About two-thirds of our faculty use this instrument in their research. In fact, NMR is so important to what they do that when our machine went down in March, we had faculty members driving to the University of Toledo to use their NMR.” says Dr. Chris Bowers, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
That the University needed a new NMR to replace the one that died was beyond question. However, many questions remained as to what the replacement should be.
“When you consider a chemistry department as a student, you ask, ‘What toys do you have?’” —Laila Oudean.
The American Chemical Society, the accrediting body of ONU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, requires that all of its affiliated schools teach students the NMR technique and how to interpret the data an NMR produces. Basic NMR competency can be taught on a machine costing a fraction of the price of the 400 MHz device ONU purchased, but with the lower price comes a much lower field. For example, a 60 MHz machine is adequate for teaching the technique, but that essentially is all it would be good for. It would not hold much in the way of research promise, but many smaller colleges and universities use them to this day. To put it in perspective, ONU installed its first NMR, a 60 MHz device, 40 years ago.
The previous NMR was a 200 MHz instrument, and it allowed conclusive characterization of four types of nuclei—hydrogen, carbon, fluorine and phosphorus. With double the field and more advanced software and electronics, the new 400 MHz NMR can examine about 65 different nuclei with much more efficacy in use and maintenance.
“It has significantly increased capabilities, so this new instrument is going to allow us to take our research in directions we wouldn’t have gone before,” says Myers. “And in our mind, teaching students to be effective chemists requires that we expose them to real research, and we need a device like this one to do that.”
As impressive as the NMR is as a piece of laboratory equipment, the real awe is reserved for the educational impact it will have on students. Every year, around 200 sophomores will get an opportunity to operate the instrument and learn to interpret the data that is collected from the instrument. Sophomore chemistry majors will go on to receive extensive hands-on training on the instrument so that they can operate it independently, which is critical for evaluating their own research projects in later years.
“It’s a huge part of what I do. I probably use it every day,” says senior chemistry major Lindsay Wiener. “My research involves creating synthetic molecules, so the NMR is crucial. Everything is so much better with the new machine. I can run so many more protons of my product, and I get faster results.”
Wiener is part of the cohort of chemistry majors who were left in limbo after the old NMR failed. Many were in the middle of research projects and needed access to an NMR. Wiener’s professors ended up running some tests for her in Toledo over the summer, but for a time, the uncertainty over a replacement NMR weighed heavily on her.
“When I first found out that the old machine died, I was very upset. At the time, some professors were saying that we might not be able to replace it until after I graduate, and that would have been really frustrating, especially with senior research and the prospect of having six hours per week of research this year and no NMR to do it on,” she says.
While they waited for news on a replacement, the students held a wake for the old machine, dressing in black and delivering eulogies. Weiner even gave the old machine a hug, something that would be highly inadvisable to do to a live 200 MHz magnet. But before panic could truly set in, there was good news. The University had ordered a new NMR and the students were told to expect it in time for spring semester this year.
“The fact that we’ve not only gotten the new device this year, but only halfway through the semester is really impressive,” says Wiener. “It really means a lot that the University moved so quickly.”
While current students like Wiener and fellow senior chemistry major Laila Oudean are already working with the new instrument (in just two weeks, over 200 analyses were completed by faculty and students), its presence should help attract more outstanding students to ONU.
“When you consider a chemistry department as a student, you ask, ‘What toys do you have?’ Because you want to be able to play with these things,” says Oudean. “ONU does a really good job at giving us access to instruments that most students don’t use until grad school. It looks really good on your résumé to be able to say that you’ve got NMR experience.”
“Chemistry departments rate themselves on the quality of their NMR facility. So yeah, bigger is better.” —Dr. Brian Myers.
It should be noted that there is a big difference between a student who can run an NMR on his or her own, and a student that has met the ACS standard of NMR competency. ONU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry prides itself on preparing students to succeed in real laboratory environments by including them in real research. Furthermore, the department grants qualified students unlimited access to the NMR facility though key-card access to the room so that they can acquire and examine their data as they find the time during their hectic schedules.
“[The faculty] trusts us completely. They train us on the instrument, and they know we are prepared,” says Wiener. “And that’s something that I’ll list on my résumé as well: that I was trusted to operate something as awesome as a quarter-million-dollar NMR.”
This level of student involvement is not new. It didn’t just begin with the arrival of the new instrument. Erick Young, BS ’91, graduated with high distinction from ONU with an ACS-approved degree in chemistry. While an undergrad, he conducted research on the synthesis and characterization of aryl-silanes under the direction of Dr. E. Alan Sadurski. Young is currently a distinguished research fellow at Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc., the largest private pharmaceutical company in the world. He knows just how important the new NMR is to producing the next generation of chemists.
“NMR is a necessary component to execute undergraduate research programs in synthetic labs, which is a huge draw for a college this size. It’s part of the core foundation that any chemist needs to be successful, and it’s directly applicable training for students who wish to pursue a career as synthetic chemists in the pharma industry,” he says.
According to Young, the caliber of ONU’s NMR rivals that which you would see today in any leading pharmaceutical company synthetic laboratory, and the techniques being taught are the exact same ones chemists use to develop new drugs. He knows that the training and access that students will get here will position them very well for entry into graduate programs or directly into the pharmaceutical industry.
“This kind of hands-on lab opportunity that we have here can oftentimes be greater than at larger institutions. Small is beautiful in that regard. You can get personal access to a very sophisticated device here, and you won’t always have that.”
Small might be beautiful in that regard, but for ONU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry this new NMR is a huge addition that helps it stand out as a place for quality education and research in the field.