Student Outreach, Recruitment Among Expected Benefits of New NMR Spectrometer

Good news: more new instrumentation will soon be installed at Western Kentucky University. Around the same time that WKU biologists, including Ajay Srivastava, Ph.D., associate professor, Biology, learned that they received a National Science Foundation grant to fund a new Laser Scanning Confocal Microscope, Kevin Williams, Ph.D., professor, Chemistry, was notified that his NSF grant proposal for a new Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer had been approved.

For Williams and his fellow WKU chemists, the grant couldn’t have come at a better time. WKU’s existing NMR spectrometer is nearing 16 years in use, with a typical operating life of 8 to 10 years.

“The NMR spectrometer is one of the workhorse instruments in a chemistry department,” Williams said. “It’s getting more difficult to find parts to repair our current spectrometer, due to its age. We were to the point this year that we’d need to develop a plan B if our grant proposal hadn’t been accepted.”

The Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer, Explained

Nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry can help researchers determine the structure of organic and inorganic compounds. NMR spectrometers are equipped with powerful magnets that help analyze a sample’s molecular structure by measuring the interaction of nuclear spins while the sample is in a magnetic field.

Not only must a NMR spectrometer be equipped with powerful magnetics; those magnets must be kept at superconducting temperatures, which is achieved by keeping the instrument filled with liquid helium and liquid nitrogen.

While WKU’s current NMR spectrometer has been in use throughout the last decade, advancements have been made both in the size and capabilities of NMR spectrometers. The current NMR spectrometer, for example, has a 500 MHz magnet. The new NMR spectrometer includes a 400 MHz magnet. Although the new magnet is smaller, it offers more functionality and requires less helium and nitrogen, which will result in a savings of around $3,000 to $4,000 per year, Williams said.

Additionally, the new NMR spectrometer offers an exciting new capability: auto-sampling.

“If you want to use our current spectrometer, you have to be in the room to log into the computer, insert your sample into the spectrometer and start running it,” Williams said. “The auto-sampler has 24 slots, so you can fill those with samples, cue it to run and it will automatically process the samples.”

Auto-sampling is expected to be especially helpful to WKU researchers who study multiple samples over time. Student researchers will benefit from the added flexibility so that they can process samples at times when they would otherwise be unavailable, such as during class.

WKU’s New NMR Spectrometer In Action

The new NMR spectrometer is scheduled to be installed some time between mid-December and mid-February. Williams said he hopes it’s running for use during the early spring semester, especially since the NMR spectrometer is such an in-demand instrument.

“Several years ago, Murray State University’s NMR spectrometer went down before they had finalized the grant for its replacement,” Williams said. “One faculty member came over every Friday with an armful of samples, then took the data back to campus. He did this every week for at least a semester. Thankfully, they received their grant in the next round.”

A National Science Foundation grant will fund a new Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer, to be installed on the Western Kentucky University campus in late 2019 or early 2020. Image provided by JEOL

WKU’s new NMR spectrometer will have no shortage of work to do once it’s installed. Williams, for example, researches platinum compounds that are structurally related to known anti-cancer drugs. As part of the research, Williams makes compounds that are structurally similar to those created by the medication, then uses the NMR spectrometer to ensure the proper accuracy and purity of the new compounds before further study continues.

Williams said he also collaborates with his wife, Blairanne Williams, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Chemistry.

“She takes some of the compounds we create and tests them to examine their toxicity in different cancer cell lines,” Williams said. “We have to ensure the samples are of a high purity when we give them to her, which is why the NMR spectrometer is important.”

The NSF grant that’s funding the new NMR spectrometer will also help facilitate exciting opportunities for collaboration. One of the goals, Williams said, is to introduce an outreach initiative to local high schools.

“Students typically do a lab in school where they synthesize aspirin,” he said. “We’d like those students to use our new NMR spectrometer to test the purity of their samples. We haven’t yet done that with our current instrument, but the auto-sampler could help us bring this idea to fruition.”

A possible byproduct of that hands-on outreach is student recruitment, once students understand what instruments like an NMR spectrometer can do and how those capabilities might align with a topic they want to study.

Current WKU students will also benefit from the new instrument. With NMR spectrometers so widely used throughout the chemistry field, amassing hands-on experience can offer students an advantage, especially if they opt to pursue graduate-level education. Once students are trained on the NMR spectrometer, they’re free to operate the instrument to gain firsthand perspective.

“There’s a couple of upper level classes that may potentially use the new instrument,” Williams said. “Adding this new NMR spectrometer to WKU elevates the university’s capabilities, which helps us recruit faculty and increases the amount of collective research. A rising tide lifts all ships.”