The college received a $264,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to further the chemistry and physics departments' research in three specific areas with a state-of-the-art Raman microscope, which is the only one of its kind in South Carolina. To get the grant, the college also had to agree to continued care of the equipment and its costly lasers, which cost between $7,000 and $25,000 to replace.
"It elevates us and puts us in an elite group," said Dr. Chad Leverette, an associate professor and the principal grant investigator. "This piece of equipment, you're only going to find that typically at a large research institution. To have that here is the best of both worlds. It allows our undergrads to work in state-of-the-art facilities and still offer them one-on-one attention."
The microscope will be used for spectroscopy and imaging applications, according to Leverette. Where a traditional microscope found in a high school lab would offer a "bulk" analysis of a sample, the Raman's chemical imaging will not only say a sample has protein or starch on it but will also contrast where protein and starch are located on the sample.
More than six years of research and several 21/2-hour trips to the next-closest Raman microscope, at the University of Georgia, went into the National Science Foundation application, said Leverette. As the department works toward earning national certification to compete with larger research institutions, Leverette said, the foundation's grant validates its research and acts as an added stamp of approval.
"It will bring scientists here. We're going to open it up and allow companies that want to try samples to use it," he said. "It's such a rare thing to have an undergraduate college to be able to have that collaboration. It allows science to not just be something they study; it allows it to become real. It's not like we're picking a project just for their degree. Their project is funded and has a real goal and has application in our area."
The microscope will also be used in forensic demonstrations during science education days at USC Aiken next year.
The microscope is being constructed in England and should arrive by February, in time for spring classes, according to Leverette.
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