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Is Your Maple Syrup from Vermont or N.H.? Ask the Machine.

KEENE, N.H. 4/8/02 - Keene State College has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to purchase a stable isotope ratio spectrometer, an instrument to help determine the composition of materials. Science students and faculty members will use the spectrometer, equipment more commonly found at large research universities, to address questions in the areas of biology, geology, and environmental studies.

The grant of about $90,000, which will be supplemented by matching KSC funds, was awarded to Renate Gebauer, assistant professor of biology/environmental studies, Tim Allen, associate professor of geology/environmental studies, and Steven Bill, associate professor of geology.

Stable isotopes of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, the most abundant elements in the natural world, are great storytellers, says Gebauer. Isotopes are elements that are chemically and physically similar, but have different masses (unlike radioactive isotopes, “stable” isotopes do not decay and don’t emit radiation).

By using stable isotope analysis, scientists can determine the isotopic composition of a great variety of materials as dissimilar as rocks, leaves, teeth, water, air, etc., which in turn can provide answers to an almost endless variety of questions. For example, says Allen, by analyzing the carbon and hydrogen isotope composition of sugar molecules in maple syrup, scientists can determine whether the syrup originated from Vermont or New Hampshire, because maple trees in the two regions are subjected to different growth conditions such as rainfall patterns. Similarly, stable isotope analysis could reveal if an unscrupulous syrup collector were substituting cane sugar for sap.

By analyzing the stable isotope composition of river water, says Allen, students will be able to determine the different water sources of the Ashuelot River. Hydrogen isotopes in feathers of migratory birds and nitrogen isotopes in the wings of monarch butterflies can provide clues about their migration patterns.

Gebauer says she is looking forward to using the equipment with students in a variety of classes. Previously, faculty members and students had to send their samples to commercial laboratories for analysis, which is costly (up to $25 a sample) and which could take up to a year.

With the new equipment in place, more students can be included in isotope analysis projects, says Gebauer. “Our students will be able to be involved in the whole process, from preparing the samples to performing the analysis,” she explains. “This will give them a much better understanding of what the results actually mean.” Having the equipment in-house will also give students the confidence to deal with sophisticated instrumentation, an important preparation for the professional world, Gebauer says.

The equipment will be up and running in time for the fall 2002 semester.

For more information, contact Renate Gebauer, assistant professor of biology/environmental studies, at 603-358-2577.

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