Learning New Methods

Maggie here-

One of my favorite parts of being a scientist is constantly learning about new ways to answer research questions that I have. I am a paleontologist, but in recent years, I have become very interested in how I can use geochemistry (looking at stable isotopes and trace elements) to address paleontological questions. Since this is a relatively new interest of mine, I have been taking classes in geochemistry, and this past semester I took an analytical geochemistry class to learn different methods that I can use to answer my own research questions. I want to share some of what that class was like because WOW, I’m still processing how awesome it was!

The Lab
Two years ago now, my department (Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of Tennessee) moved into a new building that has not only lab space for faculty and graduate students, but has a research lab designated for undergraduate research. This lab has many different instruments (ion chromatograph, gas chromatograph, inductively-coupled plasma optical emission spectrometer) as well as equipment for bench experiments that is intended to provide undergraduates with research experience through classes and working with faculty members and graduate students. The class that I was a part of did consist of graduate students, but we got to be a part of the process of launching the use of this lab and continued to prepare this space for use by undergraduates. This lab space in and of itself is a unique space for undergraduates to explore the geosciences, but my experience using the lab and learning the methodology of the instrumentation available in the lab was very beneficial.

A gas chromotographer. These instruments are designed to separate and analyze compounds (substances with two or more elements).

Class Set Up
My favorite part of this class was how it was set up because it was so interactive. We spent the first half of the semester getting acquainted with the lab itself and learning the processes that are involved with setting up a lab like this and preparing for a safety inspection. We completed a chemical inventory, worked on developing a chemical hygiene plan, and discussed budgeting (everything from how much DI water costs to the basics of how much each standard is). While this seems pretty mundane, it was an interesting process to complete and to see how detailed the process of setting up a lab is.

Photo by Dr. Annette Engel.

The second half of the semester, each student in the class chose a method to research and teach the class to use. This was a two day lesson that we were each in charge of, the first day spent teaching the theory behind the method and how the equipment works, the second day was spent using that method to look at a quick in class experiment. This meant that not only did we each become the in-class expert on a method, but we had to be able to think about timing to stage each step of the process to using that method. Some of the methods we learned about include gas chromatography, ion chromatography, and inductively-coupled plasma optical emission spectrometry (ICP-OES).

Photo by Dr. Annette Engel.
In addition to learning the process of setting up a lab and learning all different methods, budgeting was also emphasized in this class. Our professor was very transparent with us about how much money was spent to set up the lab as well as how much our science cost to do. With every method, every student leader included a question for us to figure out how much it would cost to run a certain number of samples using that method. This really impressed upon all of us in the class that science does cost money and more importantly, time, and how that all needs to be thought about well before wanting to do any analyses.

The set up of this class ensured that not only did we learn how to use different methods, but that we learned how to run our own labs and understand the work that goes into the different analyses that we write about wanting to complete. Not only did I walk out of the lab this semester being able to complete many different geochemical analyses on my own, but with some idea of the complexities of running a lab!

Class Projects

Photo by Dr. Annette Engel.
I mentioned above that part of this class was to see the breadth of projects that could be completed using the equipment that already exists in the lab. The four other people who took this class with me and myself all have VERY different areas of research and our class projects reflected that. One person was looking at fluid inclusions in granites, someone else was looking at toxins in microbes, and I was looking at trace elements in different skeletal elements of sea urchins. Almost all of us used the ICP-OES because we were interested in trace elements, but for several of us, our samples required other methods that we discussed in class to prepare the samples to be run through the ICP-OES.

All of us in the class completed all of the prep work and ran our own samples regardless of the method that we chose. Yes, we had guidance from our professor and lab manager, but the project work was all very hands on and completed by us. This gave us each a chance to apply what we had learned in class, see just how long some of these methods take, and gave us an appreciation for juggling multiple people’s lab schedules! At the end of the day though, all of us walked out of the lab with useable data to complete our chosen research projects. And, for several of us, the work done for this class project either directly helps with the completion of analyses for our theses and dissertations or helped inform us if the method we used is useful for the question we want to address.

Personal Takeaways

This is the first time in Maggie’s science journey that she has had to wear a traditional white lab coat. Photo by Dr. Annette Engel.
I am going to be really honest here, at points this class was incredibly overwhelming to me-I don’t have a strong geochemistry background and I really didn’t know what I was expecting to see in the results of my research project. But I’m really glad that I took a chance on it because I did learn so much more than I thought I would. I feel more confident in my abilities to complete geochemical analyses on my own, I learned the capabilities of several different instruments and have ideas of how to use them in future research projects, and overcame some personal lab fears-using acid to break down solids into liquids is a little scary the first time you do it! But beyond the methods, this class really emphasized the process of setting up a lab for the first time and understanding how time and monetary budgets fit in to building labs and getting analyses run. I am glad that I challenged myself to learn new methods this semester and I encourage you all to step outside your comfort zone to see where you can stretch your research to!

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