Finding the LightWhen associate professor of chemistry Rosemarie Chinni arrived at Alvernia eight years ago, she brought with her a vision for students rooted in her own college experience.
“As an undergraduate student, I landed an internship with the Department of Energy and went to Los Alamos National Laboratory,” explained Chinni. “That’s where I worked under an accomplished physicist named David Cremers and learned about laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy.” Chinni says the experience was transforming and allowed her direct access to extraordinary equipment like lasers, spectrographs, photodiode array detectors and oscilloscopes. “It really piqued my interest in instrumentation and gave me a chance to see how important those tools are in science and to applying them professionally in the field.
“I learned that the answers to all of our problems, whether they are medical or environmental, can be solved through scientific research and development,” said Chinni. Chinni wanted Alvernia students to have the same type of experience as well. She soon began working to acquire the very best instrumentation for Alvernia students, eventually leading the university to seek funding for equipment that would give students exposure to the same level of technology that she had access to at Los Alamos. Thanks to federal funding and grants, in spring 2010 Chinni’s vision became a reality. That’s when a state-of-the-art laser lab and additional research analysis instrumentation was installed in the O’Pake Science Center.
“We now have a laser lab unlike what most undergraduates would ever see,” Chinni said. The equipment can be used in research, at both molecular and atomic levels, in situations that range from testing mercury levels in water to the simple detection of lead paint on walls or children’s toys. When it comes to forensic science, the lab is well equipped for a range of activities, including identification of pesticides and drug compounds to explosive analysis and DNA fragmentation.
“Our students need to compete with other students when they apply for jobs or go to graduate school,” Chinni said. “Having access to state-of-the-art instrumentation gives them valuable experience, makes them more competitive with students graduating from other institutions, and helps to build their resumes.” Students in Chinni’s classes get to engage in hands-on research projects using Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) and Cold Vapor Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (CVAAS). Using these techniques, they have the ability to analyze a broad range of materials, including paints, water, air, and soil.
“It helps demonstrate to me that there are more techniques to determine the identity of a particular element in a given sample or substance,” said junior biochemistry and chemistry major Dan Kwasniewski of the laser lab. “It’s also increased my awareness and knowledge of how to safely and properly use instruments in the lab environment.”