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NSF Grant Funds Collaboration

A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant will lead to collaboration between several departments at SIUE. The NSF awarded SIUE $572,417 to purchase two state-of-the art microscopes for researchers in anthropology, biological sciences and chemistry, which are all housed within the College of Arts and Sciences.

The bulk of this grant will be used to purchase two microscopes: an infrared and a Raman. Grant project director Julie Holt, associate professor of anthropology and chair of that department, said this new equipment will enhance research in a variety of areas.

"These aren't the kind of microscopes you used in high school biology," she explained. "Raman and infrared microscopy allow you to look at a sample and see its unique molecular fingerprint. This enables us to compare multiple samples and see what they are made of, what's in them, if they come from the same source, or if they have the same origin."

For the field of anthropology and archaeology, these microscopes will be particularly valuable because they do not destroy the samples. Holt's research compares prehistoric pottery sherds with those from other archaeological field sites in Illinois. "In the past, archaeologist have made comparisons like this based primarily on the style of pottery," Holt said.

"Raman and infrared microscopy will show if the clays and paints used to make the pots actually come from the same source-if they have the same molecular fingerprints, then they were made in the same place." This type of examination allows researchers to tell the patterns of trade and migration in the prehistory of Illinois.

Several faculty members have plans to use the microscopes in their research.

  • Michael Shaw, professor of chemistry, and co-director of the grant, will examine the HNO molecule and its identification and characterization in order to improve the understanding of the physiological role of the HNO fragment in biological processes "HNO is a key molecule in biological processes. It is extremely elusive. We are going to try to make it and detect it before it disappears and try to see what it looks like in biological processes," Shaw explained.
  • Cory Willmott, assistant professor of anthropology, will examine dyes and pigments on samples of Native American textiles and other artifacts from museums around the world to build new spectral libraries of historic color agents. "This will enable her and museum professionals internationally to identify and date artifacts that have no provenance, including those in the University Museum's Harrington Collection," said Holt.
  • Luci Kohn, assistant professor of biological sciences, will study heavy metal pollutants in animal tissues, which has applications for human health.
  • Huichun "Judy" Zhang, assistant professor of chemistry and environmental sciences will look at metal pollutants in soils.

A little more than 25 percent of the 40,000 proposals the NSF receives each year are successful. The interdisciplinary nature of these microscopes most likely contributed to the grant being funded by the NSF.

"Writing the grant was absolutely a collaborative process and our research will continue to be collaborative," Dr. Holt said. "At the most basic level, our colleagues in the Department of Chemistry have promised to show us how to use the equipment and interpret the results."

According to Holt, writing the grant showed other ways in which faculty research interests intersect, opening the door for future collaboration. "Learning about Luci Kohn's research with pollutants in bone gave Cory Willmott the idea that we can potentially use Luci's techniques to determine whether or not lead used on smoking pipes poisoned the 18th and 19th century Native Americans who used them. Both Cory and Luci are excited to explore this avenue of collaborative research."

Shaw mirrored Holt's thoughts on cooperation between disciplines in the College of Arts and Sciences. "This could be the start of beautiful collaborations," he said. "The chemistry department has instruments that other departments don't know about and can be utilized by them."

The new microscopes could also possibly be used in a forensics program, should one be developed in the future. In addition to the two microscopes, the grant will be used to purchase published spectral libraries to aid in classification of materials.

The infrared and Raman microscopes should arrive by September. Their care and use will be overseen by the Department of Chemistry, with students in chemistry, biological sciences and anthropology having access to them. "This will provide students with an advantage in their studies," Holt said.

"These microscopes will enable cutting edge research in Illinois archaeology and Native American studies. They also will enable study of archaeological and ethnographic materials from around the world that are curated by the University Museum," Holt said. "Students engaged in this research will have a rare opportunity and will be building a solid foundation for their future, whether that be in an applied field such as cultural resource management or in a Ph.D. program elsewhere."

Once SIUE's new Science Complex is completed, the microscopes will be moved into the new building.


Research at SIUE

Recognizing that scholarship contributes to quality teaching and educational initiatives, SIUE faculty are committed to translating innovative research into student learning opportunities and success. In fiscal year 2009, SIUE faculty and staff received more than $29 million in grants and contracts for research, teaching and service initiatives. SIUE ranks highest among its Illinois Board of Higher Education peers in total research and development expenditures as reported in the most recent data from the National Science Foundation.Visit the SIUE Graduate School to learn more.

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