Stop by the north basement of Parsons Hall and you may see the high-resolution image of a tick’s mouthparts.
That image was produced by the University Instrumentation Center (UIC), which manages and provides a variety of research instruments, including one that can see great detail as that of a tick or individual grains of metal.
Nancy Cherim, one of the analytical instrumentation scientists, said that UIC was established in 1973 after gaining interest from a physics professor. The center allowed consolidation of research instruments spread across different departments at the time, as well as stronger support for maintaining the expensive instruments — one new instrument that the UIC is currently installing costs $2 million.
Since then, the UIC’s collection and variety of instruments has grown to the point where they can be found in other campus buildings.
UIC Director Shawn Banker said that the center is meant “to help researchers get what they need for their research…and allow students and anybody the ability to operate instruments and equipment, with training and oversight, that they normally would have the ability to use in their own lab.”
Although the center’s main office is in Parsons, the UIC does not belong to the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, but rather the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Research Office. It is used across many disciplines beyond the sciences.
UIC Manager John Wilderman recalled working with a professor from the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, a collection of professors studying related topics at UNH.
The professor was “trying to date a shipwreck…they thought the ship was built in the later 1800s.” Wilderman said. UIC ran a metallurgical analysis on a nail from the wreck to understand the metal composition of the nail. The professor had expected a brass nail, but it turned out to be copper.
“Copper was used as nails in the shipping industry earlier than brass, so it’s likely that the shipwreck was earlier, from the early 1800s, or maybe even 1700s, so then that shifted the record search,” Wilderman said.
The UIC analyzed the nail’s metallurgy through spectroscopy, or examining the radio frequency signature of a chemical. Wilderman explained how one spectroscopy instrument, one of the three Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) instruments at the UIC, works.
“You put a sample in the magnet, the magnetic field aligns the spins of the nuclei,” Wilderman said, referencing the nucleus of an atom, “and then you hit it with the broad spectrum of radio frequency…you’re pulsing that radio frequency and you’re listening in between pulses…each one rings back a different frequency, so you can determine something about the chemical makeup of what it’s in there as well as the structure.”
The NMR produces a spectrum, which looks like a graph with varying peaks. “The different patterns of the spectrum tell you something about the chemical makeup, and the chemical structure of what you’re looking at,” Wilderman said.
The NMR instrument is the new $2 million instrument the UIC is currently installing. This NMR will be able to analyze liquids and solids, unlike other NMR instruments that can only analyze solids.
“The idea with these is to try to centralize the best instruments, and get them well maintained, and service contracts, whatever’s required, and get people trained on them,” Banker said after pointing out the liquid and solid capability of the new instrument, “so they get a lot of use, and they get a lot of impact…lot of impact on research.
The UIC has been receiving many new instruments in the last five years. One instrument Banker is excited about is a Micro Computer Tomography (CP) System, which x-rays an object. The image this instrument produces is a 3-dimensional x-ray, instead of the common 2-dimensional x-ray you may have seen at the doctor’s office. This instrument achieves 3-D by frequently rotating an object, and thus seeing and x-raying all angles.
“It’s got a lot of diverse applications…we’re looking at charcoal, then we’re looking at polymer, or we can look at insects, we can look at vertebrae.” Banker said. The charcoal Banker mentioned was currently inside the instrument and was sourced from a 12,000-year-old torch, Cherim explained. The torch had been found in a cave in Mexico that is now flooded.
“I think this is going to be one of the most used things…we have.” Banker said about the Micro CP System.
Research is not the only area UIC uses its instruments for, as it also works extensively with industry, including manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies. These companies often ask the UIC to identify a contaminant in their products.
The UIC also works with students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and with the UNH summer camps focused on technology. They have toured students through the center and allowed them to operate an instrument. Frequently, they livestream the use of an instrument, operating the instrument and explaining the instrument’s output to students.
The UIC supports UNH students, both undergraduate and graduate, who wish to use one of the UIC’s instruments to answer a research question.
The UIC provides these students and others with free training for all of its instruments, year-round. “We want people to learn the instruments so they can go operate it.” Banker said.
Training, depending on the instrument, can be anywhere from 15 minutes to days long. Training is always done with small groups, with only one to two students per scientist. The students learn standard operating procedures of the instrument they’re interested in.
After the training, the UIC gives a student access to the instrument, which they can use for an hourly fee, a fee covered by their research advisor’s funds. Industry and other academic institutions also are charged an hourly fee, though the fee for UNH and academic users is significantly less than that for industry. Being trained on an instrument removes the cost of needing to pay for a UIC scientist to operate an instrument as well as for the hourly usage of the instrument itself.
Aside from providing instruments, Banker noted, UIC offers a repair and calibration service for any scientific instrument. UIC also offers a service where professors and lab managers can remotely check environmental parameters, such as the temperature of a lab freezer. If a parameter changes and crosses a certain threshold, Banker and the professor will receive an alert on their phone or email. This alert allows quick addressing of what caused the change, and saves any research samples that may be sensitive to such change.
“We have probably close to a hundred different devices that we’re monitoring on campus.” Banker said.
For the past few years, the UIC has also produced a calendar full of images produced by their instruments. The 2019 calendar includes images of a breast cancer cell, a plant seed magnified 45 times, and the 12,000-year-old charcoal magnified 3,000 times. This calendar is given to contributors of its images, faculty and industry customers. Students interested in obtaining a calendar should contact Banker.
After finishing discussing the instruments and the calendar, Banker was quiet for a moment. Then he underscored what the UIC is for: “We’re all about supporting the university.”