This grant supports the acquisition of a variable pressure scanning electron microscope (SEM) for Washington and Lee University. The SEM is a powerful analytical tool that enables detailed analysis of materials too small to be resolved with standard light microscopes. Furthermore, the new SEM will include specialized devices that enable semi-quantitative chemical analysis and the characterization of crystallographic orientation of minerals and other materials. Together, these state-of-the-art tools will provide essential infrastructure to advance important research objectives and prepare the next generation of emerging scientists and engineering professionals. The equipment will be well-integrated into the undergraduate curriculum at Washington and Lee University, with at least nine courses across five departments utilizing the SEM.

Specific research applications made possible by the SEM include the quantification of deformation within the Earth's crust, fission-track dating of zircon crystals, the characterization of novel polymers, the reconstruction of paleoclimate and paleoenvironment through the characterization of corals, the study of weathering rates and landscape evolution, the chemical analysis of materials in art paintings, ecological studies based on fish otolith growth, and the characterization of anti-reflective coatings. Washington and Lee University strongly supports undergraduate research, and students will continue to be involved in all of these endeavors.

Project Report

This grant enabled the establishment of a new Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) facility to enhance faculty research, undergraduate research, and science education at Washington and Lee University (W&L). The first year of the project was dedicated to the selection, purchase, and installation of the equipment. The new instrumentation includes a variable-pressure SEM that allows for high-resolution imaging, with specialized detectors that enable rapid assessment of sample chemistry and the crystallographic orientation of minerals. The facility also includes a light microscope with correlative microscopy capability; with this tool, areas studied with traditional light microscopy can be quickly and accurately found in the SEM for imaging or chemical analysis. In September of 2013, the SEM was moved to its permanent home in W&L’s IQ Center, a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary research and teaching space. Images and data from the SEM can be projected to an adjacent classroom in real time, greatly facilitating SEM demonstration or integration into classroom activities. The equipment has significantly expanded and enhanced the research conducted by both faculty and students across the sciences at W&L. For example, faculty in the Department of Geology have developed new research initiatives to investigate highly-strained rocks from the Earth’s crust and utilized the high-resolution imaging capabilities of the SEM to study corals from the Caribbean Sea. Researchers in the Department of Physics and Engineering have used the SEM to characterize the organization of nano-particles in thin layers synthesized in the laboratory. Faculty in the Department of Chemistry have documented the elemental composition of pigments preserved in paintings and other historical artifacts. In the past two years, research incorporating images or data from the SEM has been shared in more than 25 conference presentations and a growing number of scientific publications; almost all of these projects have had major involvement of undergraduate students. So far, a dozen students across three departments (Geology, Chemistry, and Physics and Engineering) have gained significant experience using the SEM, independently using the equipment to collect images and data to further their undergraduate research. The SEM and related equipment have had a major impact on the science curriculum at W&L, with hands-on laboratory exercises now integrated into numerous courses. For example, activities have been developed for both the Introductory Geology and General Chemistry courses, exposing over 100 students per year in each course to modern analytical equipment and providing new opportunities for experiential learning. Additionally, the SEM has been incorporated into a growing number of upper-level courses, including Earth Materials, Petroleum Geology, Aquatic Biology, and Cellular Biology. The high-resolution imaging and analytical capabilities of the SEM are an exciting way to stimulate public interest in science and technology. The SEM has featured prominently in two summer programs designed to engage middle-school children in Science and Archeology, and over the past two years groups of elementary and middle-school students from the local community have regularly visited campus for demonstrations. Overall, the SEM and related equipment have helped transformed the sciences at Washington and Lee University, enhancing faculty and student research, providing new opportunities for experiential learning across the curriculum, and increasing the visibility of science and technology within the university and local community. The impact of the SEM has already exceeded expectations, and the instrumentation will continue to enrich research and science education at Washington and Lee University in the years ahead.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Earth Sciences (EAR)
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Jennifer Wade
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Washington and Lee University
United States
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