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June 2009
 
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Mission Driven

One Step Ahead

The Chemistry Department’s new spectrometer gives Katies an edge in fast-changing scientific fields.

BY SUZY FRISCH
PHOTO BY ANDY FERRON

When Sarah Sullivan ’10 applies for a job or for graduate school, she will be armed with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from St. Catherine University. She also will have gained experience — unusual for a liberal arts graduate from a small university — performing research using a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer.

Giving students graduate-level research opportunities was Assistant Professor Daron Janzen’s goal when he applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant three years ago. After a lengthy application process, St. Kate’s was awarded a $150,000 grant to help buy the research-grade spectrometer and reshape the University’s chemistry curriculum.

Janzen was notified in January 2009, and by June the instrument was installed in Mendel Hall. “Last summer I was doing inorganic chemistry research from 9 to 5 every day,” says Sullivan, a senior from La Crescent, Minnesota. “Using the NMR has been an important part of our project. It will really help me if I try to get a job someday in industry because I’m getting good experience with modern instruments used in chemistry.”

Nuclear magnetic resonance is a technique used in all types of chemistry. It also has applications in fields such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and petroleum research. Researchers use the NMR to analyze the structure and symmetry of substances, identifying the unique fingerprint of each molecule.

Students gain modern, hands-on experience with the powerful analytical techniques offered by nuclear magnetic resonance and connect the relevance of those techniques to practical problems,” Janzen explains.

“A lot of liberal arts colleges don’t have this equipment, but it’s very important for chemistry and science majors.”
—Eun-Woon Chang, Ph.D., National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation covered half the price tag of the nearly $300,000 instrument with a Course Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Award; the University will pay for the remainder. St. Kate’s strong institutional support was a key reason why reviewers rated Janzen’s proposal so high in the competitive grant process, according to Eun-Woo Chang, Ph.D., program director of the NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

Less than one-quarter of applicants in the program typically receive an award. “Getting such a high-quality instrument for a small liberal arts school like St. Kate’s is especially difficult,” says Chang, adding that the NSF was pleased that the instrument will help St. Kate’s train women for science graduate programs and careers. “A lot of liberal arts colleges don’t have this equipment, but it’s very important for chemistry and science majors.”

So far the University has raised $32,500 to cover the cost of the NMR, with $92,500 more to go, notes gift officer Amy Polski Larson ’91. Donors who contribute $2,500 or more will have their names inscribed on a plaque in Mendel Hall.

“Donors can be assured that their gifts will help us provide our students with top-notch science educations,” Polski Larson says. “This is state-of-the-art equipment that gives students opportunities that are uncommon at a school of this size. It’s rare to get this hands-on experience as an undergraduate.”

‘BEST AND BRIGHTEST’

The grant, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and the Fundamental Concept of Molecular Structure, is the first part of a major effort to reframe St. Kate’s chemistry laboratory curriculum.

That ambitious goal appealed to the National Science Foundation. “This is a curriculum grant, not an instrument grant,” Janzen says. “The curriculum will change to incorporate the technique, which we haven’t had access to for some years.”

The University’s old NMR “died” about three years ago, Janzen explains. It also was outdated, given that St. Kate’s bought the instrument through a grant authored in 1990 by Professor Emerita of Chemistry Mary Thompson ’50, CSJ. “Antiquated doesn’t quite capture the change in technology,” he says with a laugh.

Believing that St. Kate’s needed the spectrometer to recruit and train the best and brightest students, Janzen made it his personal goal to secure a new instrument. He served as the lead principal investigator for the grant proposal, teaming with Chemistry Department colleagues Professor John Dwyer, Associate Professor Gina Mancini-Samuelson and Professor Brady Williams.

Janzen was “ecstatic” when he heard that St. Kate’s had received the grant. “It’s great for the students, and it’s great for the department. It will be really important for recruiting new students and faculty,” he says.

The NMR will help chemistry students from St. Kate’s succeed in teaching, research or pursuing an advanced degree. It also helps the University stand out from its peers and further its commitment to engaging women in science.

“The NMR allows our undergraduate students to compete with students from major research universities and say, ‘I already know how to use this piece of equipment,’” says Beth Koenig, director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. “Our students graduate prepared in both theory and practice — the NMR is the latest and greatest tool for doing that.”

Last summer, Janzen guided Sullivan and junior Anna Myhre ’11 in research that studied molecules for use as light-emitting diode (LED) materials or optical sensors. Those investigations would have been impossible without a new NMR. “This is not just a teaching instrument or a training model,” Janzen says. “This is a modern piece of research-grade equipment — and it’s a critical part of doing chemistry.”


SUZY FRISCH is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.

For more information about how you can make a difference in the lives of future scientists by contributing toward the cost of the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, please contact gift officer Amy Polski Larson ’91 at 651-690-8796 (toll-free, 1-800-945-4599, ext. 8796) or aplarson@stkate.edu.

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Sarah Sullivan ’10 and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Daron Janzen with St. Catherine’s new nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.