Harrisburg University builds technology offerings with national grant

Harrisburg University of Science and Technology received a $10,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Conference Memorial National College Grants Program that will help offset the cost for a recently purchased Fourier transform-infrared (FT-IR) spectrometer.

“It’s just one more step in Harrisburg University providing an exceptional education,” said Dr. Catherine Santai, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at HU who applied for the grant.

The infrared spectrometer uses infrared radiation to identify unknown substances and can study how molecules interact. It has practical applications ranging from confirming synthesis in organic chemistry to identifying shards of glass at a crime scene through forensic science.

“This is one of the most common instruments that students will find in most laboratories, and we’re teaching them how to use it in a hands-on way,” Dr. Santai said. “It gives them a really robust set of skills to take out in the workforce and makes them much more marketable to employers.”

Harrisburg University invests in technology

Students studying chemistry, biochemistry, instrumental analysis, forensic chemistry and environmental science will likely use the equipment in lab courses and to support research projects.

The spectrometer is part of a broader investment from Harrisburg University. HU also bought an atomic absorption spectrometer, two ultraviolet-visible spectometers, a super-speed centrifuge and various other equipment to expand its technology offerings.

The school actually purchased the infrared spectrometer before the grant was awarded.

“We approached the administration and told them what we saw as needs, and they fulfilled them,” Dr. Santai said. “HU has been incredibly generous in its investments.”

In January, Santai got the news that Harrisburg University would receive one of the competitive national grants geared toward smaller schools, helping to defray the initial costs.  Only 14 of the 59 proposals reviewed – about 23 percent – received funding, making it a particularly competitive endeavor.

Classic techniques, modern accessories

So far, students have taken a keen interest in the infrared spectrometer.

It has a unique accessory called Attenuated Total Reflectance, which is made of diamond. Users can place samples on the surface of the diamond and examine how the light reflects off it.

“It allows you to use very, very small sample sizes and get really accurate information about what something is and the properties that it has,” Dr. Santai said.

Users can also introduce samples in a variety of forms, including pressing solids to the point that they become translucent and allow light to pass through like a sunbeam through a window.

Students received their introduction to the spectrometer by pressing samples, a process that requires a tremendous amount of force, Dr. Santai said. It helps students build their muscles, she joked, until they learn an easier method later.

And the excitement each student has for learning to use the tool is just one reward of Dr. Santai’s work to secure HU’s grant.

“What’s nice about the instrument is you can learn classic sample techniques,” Santai said, “but the accessories that we bought allow students to look at the most modern way samples are prepared, too.”