Bryn Mawr’s new Geochemsitry Lab Suite brings the latest technology to students and faculty as they work to unlock answers to everything from climate change to the Earth's most severe known extinction event.
“We’re now able to do experiments on samples right here in this lab that we used to have to send out for analysis and wait weeks to get back,” says Geology Assistant Professor Pedro Marenco. “We’ve also consolidated a lot of equipment that was spread out throughout the building so that we can work much more efficiently.”
Construction of the new lab, which is now fully operational, began in May of 2011.
The lab is located on the third floor of the Park Science Building in a space that used to be part of the Collier Science Library. The space became available as more of the material formerly archived in Collier has become digitized.
Marenco and fellow geologists Associate Professor Don Barber and Lecturer and Laboratory Coordinator Lynne Elkins will be among the scientists making the most use of the lab. However, it’s intended as a possible resource for faculty members from a variety of departments.
"We have already discussed applications for the equipment in this space with faculty from Chemistry and Biology,” says Marenco.
The lab is a suite comprising several rooms: a sedimentology lab, a darkroom, a balance room, the geochemistry lab, and the clean room.
The “dirtiest” part of the lab is where researchers do sedimentology work. Here, students process and analyze sediments before moving samples to the geochemistry lab for chemical analysis.
The geochemistry lab is home to several fume hoods and work stations. Prior to entering the lab, users have to change out of their own shoes and into Croc-like slip-on shoes. In this lab, students and professors do a lot of work that involves dissolving rocks with acids, so each fume hood is equipped with “scrubbers” that neutralize the acids so as to prevent the production of harmful waste. The intermediate lab is also home to the ELTRA CS2000 carbon/sulfur determinator, which combusts powdered samples at high temperature to measure carbon and sulfur content levels.
The other major piece of equipment in the intermediate lab is the Agilent Technologies Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (ICP-MS), used to determine the abundance of various elements in rock and fluid samples.
“This is a very sophisticated piece of equipment that’s rare to have at a college the size of Bryn Mawr, so we’re very happy to have this,” says Marenco.
The smallest rooms in the lab are the darkroom and balance room.
The darkroom houses the Carpenter Microsystem CM-2 microsampler for high-resolution sampling of minerals in hand samples and thin sections. The microsampler allows faculty and students to operate a microscopic joy-stick-controlled drill that’s used to extract samples.
Geology Major Hannah Gatz-Miller ’12 was recently using the setup to look for fossils of extinct eel-like organisms no larger than a grain of sand in carbonate rocks from Montana.
"The ability to do all the extraction work as well as the more delicate microscope work in what essentially amounts to the same space is really great as far as keeping things organized goes," says Gatz-Miller. "I don't have to worry so much about losing or misplacing my samples, and all the equipment finally has a place to go—and can actually be used."
The balance room is a small, unventilated room in which an extremely precise balance capable of measuring one millionth of a gram sits on large marble table so as to minimize any disturbance from vibration or air currents.
“At most places this type of thing is an afterthought and they’ll take a corner of a room and build something like a tiny closet where it’s very hard to work comfortably,” says Marenco.
“The ICP-MS used to be located in the basement and the balance was in the lab next to my office, which was one floor and several hallways away,” says Marenco. “Obviously this is a much more efficient way to do things.”
The clean lab has an anteroom where users of the lab are required to don sterile lab suits that resemble the gear worn by hazmat crews. The lab itself is mostly free of metal and has an advanced air-filtration system.
“Anyone who wants to measure isotopes or do work that is easily contaminated will be able to use this space,” says Elkins, who will be using the lab to do trace-metal analysis in her current research.
"This new lab space allows for a much safer and more-efficient working environment for our students and faculty. We're very excited to be part of Bryn Mawr's commitment to offering students the latest in science research opportunities in a liberal-arts setting," says Marenco.