From Classroom to Laboratory

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Chemisty course in metrology takes students to three state-of-the-art facilities

University News | March 4, 2020

By Laynee H. Timlin

Students in Associate Professor of Chemistry Maury Howard’s “CHEM 310 - Metrology: Measurement Science” course had unique opportunities to learn about scientific measurement during VWU's January Term. The course focused on chemical analysis through classwork and in state-of-the-art laboratories in Coastal Virginia, Richmond, and Gaithersburg, Maryland. Many of the participating students were awarded Study Away Course Grants and Buddy Grants from The Lighthouse: Center for Exploration and Discovery to undertake this experience.

"The metrology course was one of five courses that included a travel component during the term," said Director of January Term and Associate Professor of Biology Deidre Gonsalves-Jackson. "During January 4-22, there were a total of 53 courses for first-year students and upperclassmen to choose from."

Students who chose Dr. Howard's chemistry course spent a week in Gaithersburg at the U.S. Department of Commerce National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). They were able to interact with prominent scientists who promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.

The course also took them to the science-led global healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Products laboratory in Richmond and to the Norfolk-based Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), which protects public health and waters of Hampton Roads through effective wastewater treatment.

“Our visit to the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) here in Norfolk enabled students to learn how the standards developed at NIST are used in their facilities,” said Dr. Howard. “In fact, HRSD is one of the premiere analytical labs on the east coast, so it was a great opportunity right in our own backyard.”

The course originated as a result of Professor Howard’s post-doctoral fellowship at NIST following her own graduate school experience.

“At NIST, I did some of the most rigorous and precise work in chemical analysis that I had ever done,” noted Dr. Howard. “I got to experience new instrumentation and worked with scientific experts in the chemical and geochemical fields—and I enjoyed it very much. The work at NIST was such a unique experience for me that I wanted to share it with students when I went back to teaching.”

Dr. Howard designed and launched the metrology course for the first time in January 2015. The course continued to be offered in 2017 and 2019, however, the 2019 opportunity was cancelled due to the government shutdown.

Her goals for this course were to expose students to high precision analytical methods and facilities they may never experience otherwise and provide them with the chance to work directly with research experts in the field of chemical analysis, using advanced instrumentation and facilities not available on campus. She says the course also gave students the opportunity to experience what federal research programs and laboratories have to offer and to learn about measurement systems and how integrated into society and the economy they are.

The first week of the course consisted of classwork focused on what a National Metrology Institute (NMI) was, and how metrology impacts our daily lives, particularly with respect to global commerce. Howard explained that NIST essentially sets the standards for the U.S. and cooperates with NMIs around the world to set measurement standards that impact global trade. She noted that the International System of Units is the basis of comparable measurements across the world, and NMIs developed and controlled the originals—the kilogram, the meter, etc.

To prepare for their on-site laboratory experiences, students in Howard’s course equipped themselves with Excel files and spreadsheets, read articles about each of the labs they would visit, and organized journals of what they would do each day, prepared to write reflections about each lab. Many had also taken the course “Analytical Chemistry,” which was recommended prior to participation.

Their experiences included tours of laboratories, exposure to instrumentation that determines the basis for units of measure in the U.S., and engagement with prominent scientists and distinguished professionals in the field.

“We worked in a clean room, where we had to wear shoe covers, hair nets and lab coats,” said junior Maria Dart ‘21. “Any outside dirt could affect the results of our experiment.”

For senior Christopher Fegan ‘20, skills learned in the classroom were able to be put into actual practice.

We used a lot of knowledge that we learned in ‘Analytical Chemistry’, especially as it deals with spike recoveries,” explained Fegan. “In a spike recovery you take two identical samples and add a known amount of analyte into one (spike), then run both through your instrument. Because you know how much was added, you can tell by comparing the spiked sample with the regular sample whether or not there is something else in the sample that is causing the signal to be different than it should be.”

Students agreed that one of the most impressive new skill learned was engaging in the analytical method, Isotope Dilution Mass Spectrometry (IDMS).

“While we were at NIST, we were actually able to work with some instruments and utilize an analytical method called Isotope Dilution Mass Spectrometry (IDMS),” said sophomore Dylan Roberts ‘22. “We looked at water samples from Flint, Michigan, and analyzed them for different isotopes of lead. The lab work was only a small part of our experience at NIST, the tours that we went on were amazing. We were able to see so much cool technology that impacts our everyday life in one way or another.”

Dr. Howard noted that three Virginia Wesleyan alumni currently work in HRSD’s analytical labs and two VWU alumni are working at GSK in Richmond after participating in paid summer internships there. HRSD also offers internships in their Technical Services Division and NIST has a paid, competitive summer research fellowship program for undergraduates, which two VWU students have been awarded in past years.

Chemistry and mathematics major Kitana Finley ’21 plans to take advantage of the opportunities she learned about during the experience. She says that the most impactful aspect for her was meeting the scientists.

“I loved working with them and was pleased to discover that there is an internship at NIST for undergraduates, so I am hoping to get into the program and continue working with amazing scientists.”

Finley notes that the January Term experience has better prepared her for her future career plans. After graduation from VWU, she hopes to work in laboratories like the ones she visited during the course, and eventually continue her education—in this field that she loves—in graduate school.

Learn more about January Term at VWU