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Experts and Equipment that Rock


In 2015, Hamilton invested in an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer and two experts to operate it, making the College one of a handful of academic institutions to offer that package to its faculty and students.

The state-of-the-art XRF spectrometer analyzes the composition of rocks, minerals, and soil, and faculty and students in geosciences and archaeology make use of it for coursework and independent projects. Professor of Geosciences David Bailey and Associate Professor of Archaeology Nathan Goodale came up with the plan to acquire the spectrometer, which replaced an outdated, nonfunctioning machine.

Lab Equipment
Plastic molds and maps used to prepare samples for an analytical technique called laser-ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Fused and cut rock samples can be seen on the bottom of the molds, which are filled with epoxy to create disks that will be polished and sent out to be lased. The technique extends the range of elemental concentrations measured by the XRF technique in Hamilton’s lab. Photo: Bob Hendelman

Sometimes timing is everything. As Bailey and Goodale searched for money for the new equipment, they learned that the two technicians who’d been running a successful analytical lab at Washington State University wanted to relocate. Bailey and Goodale made a pitch to the College — hire the technicians to set up and run a lab with a new machine. Besides working with students and faculty, they could take on commercial jobs to help offset the cost of running the lab.

The College purchased the $220,000 spectrometer through a lease-to-own program; money from the commercial jobs may eventually cover the initial investment. The expert team that runs the Hamilton Analytical Lab consists of Richard Conrey, who holds a doctorate in geology, and Laureen Wagoner, who has multiple graduate degrees and post-grad training.

So far so good. “It’s an experiment to see if a small college like Hamilton can find a new model for owning and operating expensive scientific equipment. The lab is not cost neutral yet, but we’re heading in the right direction,” Bailey says.

The lab has been building a reputation for the quality of the data it produces and scored a coup in 2017 when it won a five-year, $300,000 contract with the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s how lava from the devastating summer 2018 eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano made it to College Hill for analysis.

Drew Castronovo and Robert Welch
Lab assistants Drew Castronovo ’19 (left) and Robert Welch ’20 analyze data. Photo: Bob Hendelman

To help accommodate the outside jobs, the lab has hired and trained students. For geosciences major Drew Castronovo ’19, working in the lab has been one of his most meaningful experiences at Hamilton. He does the prep work, making rock samples into beads by crushing them into powder, melting them in crucibles, and polishing one side of the glass beads flat so they can be analyzed in the spectrometer.

Conrey is one of Castronovo’s thesis advisors, and working with him as a research mentor has been rewarding. “Even more than that, I think it’s really valuable because on top of getting a college education, I’m also getting work experience in an XRF lab,” Castronovo says.

Lindsay Buff ’17 could be considered another early return on the investment in the lab equipment. A dual geosciences and archaeology major, she was one of the first students to conduct research using the machine. Access to it helped Buff expand her senior project, which involved analyzing volcanic rocks to trace the source material for stone tools from a First Nations pithouse village in British Columbia.

Lindsay Buff
Lindsay Buff ’17 gathers samples in British Columbia during her time as an undergraduate.

She’s now applying to grad schools with the goal of a doctorate in igneous geochemistry, and she’s convinced that her undergraduate research experience will help her get there. It helped her land a summer job in a lab while she was a Hamilton student; her boss told her that she wouldn’t have been hired without it.

“One of the issues with going to a small liberal arts college to study science is the lack of big-scale research projects you can do. Having not only the machines there, but also extra faculty whose sole job it is to know how to use the machines, know how to calibrate them, know how to analyze the data, is a huge boon to the College,” Buff says.

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