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Haverford College
Departments of Physics and Astronomy
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Haverford Receives $1 Million from National Science Foundation to Purchase New Instruments

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Jenni Punt demonstrates the FACSAriaII to her "Superlab" students.
Jenni Punt demonstrates the FACSAriaII to her "Superlab" students.

The instruments, which include three different kinds of microscopes and a high-tech cell sorting system, will strengthen research capabilities for faculty and students in the biology and physics departments.

A substantial grant from the National Science Foundation is keeping Haverford’s faculty and students on a par with some of the country’s largest research institutions.

Haverford’s departments of biology and physics have received a $1 million grant from the NSF to purchase four new high-tech imaging instruments that will enhance research capabilities for all users. The instruments include a transmission electron microscope, a scanning electron microscope, a confocal light microscope and a fluorescence-activated cell sorting system (FACS). The first of these instruments, an FACSAriaII, has just arrived and the others are on order for delivery in the coming weeks and months.

“It is very unusual for undergraduate students to have access to such cutting-edge instrumentation,” says Karl Johnson, Professor of Biology and chair of the department, who co-authored the grant proposal with Associate Professor of Biology Rob Fairman. “We all are looking forward to the benefits they will offer our research and teaching programs in the years and decades to come.”

The transmission and scanning electron microscopes use electrons instead of light as sources of energy, and will allow users to view images at atomic-level resolutions. “We will be able to see individual molecules, proteins, and DNA,” says Rob Fairman. And the confocal microscope, he adds, will “create three-dimensional reconstructions of objects.”

Assistant Professor of Biology Rachel Hoang will make use of the confocal, while Professor of Physics Walter Smith will employ the scanning electron microscope. Both professors played key roles in the preparation of the grant proposal.

The FACS is vital to faculty and students who study different types of stem cells and blood cells, such as Haverford President Stephen G. Emerson, Professor of Biology Jenni Punt and their seniors. The instrument allows them to analyze up to nine different features of individual cells in a mixed population, and then “sort” or collect those cells that have the necessary features. The FACS will also be used right away in the “Superlab” classroom co-taught by Bob Daber, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) post-doctoral fellow, and Jenni Punt. “Bob has designed an experiment that will allow our junior level superlab students to ‘direct’ the evolution of a sugar binding site in a bacterial system,” says Punt. “This requires a sorting step—for bacteria that fluoresce green!—and the FACS has arrived just in time for students to be able to use it.”

Haverford students’ involvement in their professors’ research, and the benefits they will receive from exposure to this equipment, were highlights of the NSF proposal. “It is extremely gratifying to see the level of confidence in Haverford’s approach to undergraduate education and research expressed by the NSF’s willingness to provide this major grant,” says Steve Emerson.

Ultimately, Rob Fairman and his colleagues hope that these instruments will be the basis of a future core imaging facility at Haverford. “We currently have a grant request in to NIH (National Institutes of Health) for funding to renovate our laboratory research spaces, creating a new home for these fabulous new instruments,” he says.

-Brenna McBride