Hands-on Learning Gets a Boost

By Emma Kersting '24, September 20, 2022

National Science Foundation grant allows chemistry department to upgrade critical equipment.

Ithaca College’s chemistry department has taken advantage of a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to upgrade its Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer. A Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer is an instrument used to learn about the structure of molecules.

“The technology is exactly the same as an MRI,” said Mike Haaf, professor and chair of the chemistry department. “It’s a giant magnet, but instead of putting a person in, you put in a sample. The strong magnetic field allows you to interrogate the structure and learn about it.”

Haaf, along with Associate Professor Scott Ulrich and Professor Anna Larsen, wrote the grant proposal and made sure to highlight how upgrading the machine would benefit IC students’ classroom experience, as well as their research.

“We are a department that strongly values undergraduate research,” Ulrich said.

Chemistry students often use the NMR spectrometer during classes in their first year on campus, and students engaging in research — regardless of their major — routinely use it by themselves once they get comfortable with it.

“We had a recent graduate who got a job at a chemical company because he’d used this equipment before and the other applicants hadn’t.”

Mike Haaf, professor and chair of the chemistry department

“Anyone taking the organic chemistry lab is able to use the machine,” Haaf said.

“That’s unlike programs at other schools,” Larsen said. “At those schools, there’s typically an operator that the students give their samples to, but here the students do it themselves.”

Research projects have a big impact on the trajectory and success of students in the program. Ahands-on experience using the spectrometer can be a big advantage to students as they apply for jobs or admission to competitive graduate schools.

“We had a recent graduate who got a job at a chemical company because he’d used this equipment before and the other applicants hadn’t,” Haaf said.

The spectrometer has been at the college since 2005. The magnet of the spectrometer still works well, so the grant was asking for funding to replace other elements of the machine. The magnet is one of the biggest and most expensive elements of the NMR spectrometer, so replacing the software was much more manageable.

“Twenty years in the software industry is like a century, so we were definitely due for an upgrade,” Larsen said.