Recently, a Whitman chemistry professor answered her phone, listened — and then screamed.

It was work-related.

Incredible, long-awaited news. And soon after the phone call there was a major celebration with students, professors and a homemade cake baked by a student that was topped with the letters “NMR.”

And the euphoria didn’t stop there. Other departments were hearing the news about the “SEM.”

Whitman College is the recipient of two National Science Foundation grants totaling about $800,000 that will bring in two state-of-the-art instruments — technology developed in Oregon and Germany — that faculty say will transform the departments and their work.

The instruments: a 1,200-pound $388,000 Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer and a $407,000 Scanning Electron Microscope.

The 400-megahertz NMR has a 6-foot-long magnet that has the power to clean off the credit cards in your pockets and attract the keys on the keychain around your neck, professors say. It will need its own room that will be modified for strict climate control to ensure it remains between the required temperatures of plus or minus 1 degree Celsius. Nearby metal pipes will be moved a safe distance from the magnetic field and anti-static flooring added.

“This is the essential instrument we needed,” said Marion Götz, assistant professor of chemistry, who spearheaded the effort to get the NMR together with Timothy Machonkin and aided by Allison Calhoun, associate professor of chemistry; and Marcus Juhasz, assistant professor of chemistry. The instrument will enable the researchers to examine the molecular structures of chemical compounds.

Götz, a medicinal chemist who specializes in drug design and is currently working on anti-parasitic agents, explained that “basically the NMR will give you the structure of a molecule.”

With the NMR, “all of my research is going to go a lot faster,” she said. Currently samples need to be sent out, resulting in a three-week turnaround. She said research has been impeded because of the long waits.

Students’ labs will be upgraded, and their education experiences enhanced by viewing real spectra instead of textbook examples and by developing NMR operating skills. “Most grad schools expect you to be able to analyze and operate NMRs,” Götz said.

And then there’s the SEM.

Kirsten Nicolaysen, assistant professor of geology, most certainly having a good day recently, up in Alaska with students, doing the research she loves on volcanos. But good turned into thrilling when she answered a satellite phone call with news about a new SEM.

“Euphoria,” she said, describing her reaction that day.

Nocolaysen, who spearheaded the SEM effort backed by several professors — Kate Jackson, assistant professor of biology; Dan Vernon, professor of biology; Gary Rollefson, professor of anthropology; and Ginger Withers, Dr. Robert F. Welty Associate Professor of Biology —said the SEM will “dramatically impact” her classes.

Vernon explained the SEM “allows researchers to view surface structures of samples at a huge range of magnification — “magnifying things from a few ‘x’ to 10’s of thousands of times.”

Nicolaysen and students are back from a summer trip of research on an Alaskan island where there is a caldera that has never been studied and is similar in scope to that of Crater Lake. They will use the SEM to help them reconstruct the history of the volcano and the violent eruption that created it. The SEM will provide information about the mineral composition of magma samples that will give researchers the information they need to lead to conclusions about such things as where the rock was during its formation beneath the earth’s surface. The SEM also can create digital images of a single ash shard from a past volcano, enabling researchers to determine how explosive the eruption was based on the size and shape and stretch of the shard.

“The SEM has really become a workhorse of geology and biology research communities and teaching,” Nicolaysen said. In addition, the hands-on experience for students means better preparation for graduate school and future employment, perhaps operating an SEM, she said.

The instrument will be used across disciplines, Jackson said, and “is expected to yield discoveries in many fields. Advances in basic genetics and neuroscience will result from the capacity for imaging hydrous biological samples such as mutant plant embryos and brain cells. New understanding of the evolution of vertebrates including early humans (because of) the spectacularly clear imaging at a broad range of magnifications of fossil fragments, snake fangs and prehistoric tools. And the ability to spatially map composition of geological materials is expected to enhance current knowledge of how volcanoes function.”

The instruments also will be available to other area educational institutions and students. Anthropologists and students will be able to find microscopic markings on prehistoric stone tools with the instrument, Jackson said. Physicists would use it for microscopic writing and etching. And the instrument’s pristine digital images will be of the quality needed for publication in research publications.

It will “provide lots of answers in a lot of fields,” she said.

The professors already know why Whitman got the grants. The answers are in the NSF reviewers’ comments.

"Of all the grants on which I am primary reviewer this one impressed me the most,” one reviewer said in the summary statement. “It was the best organized and executed, and had an impressive outreach program as well as what seemed an innovative teaching and research approach …. It seemed effective without being stridently aggressive.

“It made me envy the students," the reviewer stated.

— Virginia Grantier