Chemistry department acquires new instruments with Welch grant

Senior Carmen Portillo uses the flourimeter, an instrument that measures the amount of light that passes through a solution. The chemistry department purchased a total of three instruments with part of a grant from the Welch Foundation.

The chemistry department has three new instruments that Dexter would probably wish he had in his laboratory: the fluorimeter, gas chromatograph and the atomic absorption instruments.

The department received the instruments last semester after purchasing them with money left over from a Welch Foundation grant. According to the Welch Foundation website, the organization supports fundamental chemical research at educational institutions in Texas, and is one of the nation’s oldest and largest private funding sources for basic chemical research.

Dr. Eric Van Caemelbecke, professor of chemistry, said the department applies for the grant yearly around July by writing a proposal and stating its plans for using the funds, such as traveling or purchasing equipment.

If the foundation approves the proposal, the department receives the funds around the beginning of the following school year.

“Last year, we received about $30,000,” Van Caemelbecke said. “Part of the money left over was used to buy this equipment.”

Although the laboratory received the instruments this past spring semester, the students are just now utilizing them.

“Those instruments had not been unpacked so this is the first year they are being used,” said Dr. Treacy Woods, chair of the chemistry department.

The fluorimeter is currently used by students in senior seminars. However, students will not use the other instruments until later in the school year. Students will utilize the gas chromatograph in November and the atomic absorption instrument in the spring.

The fluorimeter requires the use of a cuvette, an instrument similar to a small transparent tube that is filled with a solution that students want to investigate. Then, the fluorimeter “excites” the solution with a sudden light and detects how much light is emitted after excitation. This data is displayed on a computer screen, showing different wave patterns for the light emission of each solution. Students can use such data to compare the properties of various solutions.

Senior Kevin Ramirez takes a senior seminar class that requires the daily use of this instrument, which he said was difficult to work with at the beginning.

“At first it was hard using the fluorimeter,” he said. “We stayed in the lab pretty long just learning how to use the instrument, but now, it takes about five minutes.”

The senior seminar lab includes only one other student, senior Carmen Portillo. The lab requires students to research a problem the professor gives them at the start of the semester.

“We research articles and investigate using the fluorimeter and other equipment,” Portillo said. “At the end of the semester, we present our findings to our professors.”

Ramirez said he believes using a wide array of instruments in the small class gives him an advantage over other chemistry students from large universities, where labs consist of large groups competing to use the same machines.

“It’s not like we’re fighting for one machine and saying ‘Oh I need to use this machine now I have to kick you off,’” Ramirez said. “We both get really proficient at using this machine because the class size is so small with just the two of us.”

Van Caemelbecke said he believes the acquisition of new instruments for the small classes is advantageous to students. He added that the more types of equipment students work with, the higher their chances are at getting a job in the chemical industry.

“Sometimes when students apply for a job in the chemical industry, I even get phone calls asking me what type of equipment students have used and how the students are performing when using that equipment,” he said. “It’s important to expose students to a variety of scientific instruments.”

He added that he believes such an exposure increases students’ critical thinking skills and helps prepare them for getting into the professional world.

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