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Grant will take environmental research to new level

By Linnae Stole '10
October 14, 2009

The interdisciplinary faculty team responsible for obtaining the NSF grant includes Stephanie Schmidt, John Schade and Charles Umbanhowar Jr. (standing). Not pictured is Doug Beussman '92.

St. Olaf College soon will be in possession of an isotope ratio mass spectrometer — equipment that will help bring student researchers and faculty members to the leading edge of environmental research.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded St. Olaf a $567,780 grant for the purchase of the spectrometer to a team of St. Olaf faculty members that includes Associate Professor of Chemistry Doug Beussman '92, Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies John Schade, Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Stephanie Schmidt, and Professor of Biology and Department Chair Charles Umbanhowar. Combined with other scientific equipment owned by the college, possession of the instrument (which will be delivered in December) will place St. Olaf at the forefront of environmental analysis in the coming years.

Tiny differences
The spectrometer is connected to a set of instruments responsible for analyzing different types of materials that communicate electronically. The complete set of instruments will allow researchers to measure multiple isotopes of a number of elements, particularly carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, in solids, liquids, and gasses. It has the capability to note the tiniest differences in the weight of elements, such as the difference between Carbon12 and Carbon13 atoms, for example.

In explaining the importance of this ability, Schade says that stable isotopes can act as tracers of environmental processes to tell a story about the environment. Scientists can often tell what kind of food an animal has been eating based on the animal’s Carbon13 content, for example, and they can use Nitrogen15 to estimate how much meat an omnivore is eating. Other uses of stable isotopes include tracking bird migrations by analyzing feathers, studying carbon cycling in wetlands by measuring carbon in bacterial lipids, and extracting climate change information from tree rings.

Possession of this instrument is a rarity among liberal arts colleges, and the interdisciplinary approach St. Olaf plans to take regarding its use is rare even among larger universities. Schade explains how at most large research universities an instrument of this caliber is generally associated with a specific lab, and there is little interaction between multiple users. “These expensive instruments require commitments of time and resources to maintain,” explains Schade. “At St. Olaf we are fortunate that we have the expertise and commitment to these types of research activities. What [the spectrometer] will do is expand the depth and breadth of science questions we can answer, which will make us more productive and propel us into the forefront of environmental science.”

Environmental studies at St. Olaf
The Department of Environmental Studies at St. Olaf has been growing steadily since the first environmentally focused courses were offered in the early 1980s. What used to be offered as only a concentration (beginning in 1987) became a full-fledged major 10 years ago. Students have the opportunity to pursue several tracks within the subject, including natural science, social science, the arts and humanities. Both the major and the concentration are intended to be highly interdisciplinary. Students take an introduction to environmental studies at the onset of the program and conclude with a senior capstone, but courses in between vary depending on the chosen focus. The opportunity for research is integral to students’ success, and Schade notes how St. Olaf’s reputation in the field has increased dramatically due to the work of faculty and students.

“With the increase in awareness over the past decade of global environmental issues, there is a growing belief that solutions need to be developed to avoid serious humanitarian problems," he says. "Many of the solutions involve increasing scientific understanding of the consequences of environmental change, and the new spectrometer will give St. Olaf the tools it needs to be on the leading edge of the type of research that will provide this understanding.”

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or