Jones banishes ‘black box’ effect with new portable spectrometer

Clint Jones

When you turn on your television, computer or cell phone, it’s enough that it works, right?  Not so in chemistry. You have to know HOW it works.

Clint Jones, Ph.D., chemistry department chair at Mercyhurst University, took a page from a CSI drama to explain:  “You stick a sample in a black box and within minutes you have an answer. But if you are a professional scientist or an expert witness in a courtroom, that won’t be enough. You need to know the internal workings of the instrument to explain why its findings are valid.”

Further, Jones said, “Learning these advanced details allows students to develop new techniques and perhaps invent new pieces of instrumentation.”

Jones recently received a $6,000 grant from the College Equipment Grants Program of the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh to purchase an Ocean Optics JAZ spectrometer for faculty and student research. The first assignment for his students: take it apart.

“I never want to have a student approach an analytical measurement by just placing his or her sample into a black box and waiting for an answer,” Jones said. “This often requires me to take instruments apart to show students why the individual components are arranged as they are and how the information is relayed from source to detector. The new spectrometer system is modular, which will help students see how the necessary components depend on each other.”

Spectrometers have a variety of scientific uses. Essentially they determine information about an object or substance by analyzing its interaction with light, which may or may not be visible to us. In this way, scientists can analyze unknown materials then compare the results to known samples to determine the composition of a test subject. Mercyhurst undergraduates will use the spectrometer in research projects involving water and soil analysis, gold nanoparticle assays and enzyme kinetics.

Jones said the spectrometer is portable, which will allow faculty and students more flexibility in gathering data in the field.

Jones will be presented the award at the awards banquet of the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh on May 15 at Duquesne University.



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