By Anastasia Howland
This past month, Montreat College’s Morgan Science Building welcomed its newest, several-hundred pound resident—a mass spectrometer. This 2.5 by 1.2 foot machine originally cost its previous owner, Sanesco International Inc., roughly $300,000. However, the mass spectrometer and all of its accoutrements were graciously donated last month to Montreat College by the Asheville biotechnology company.
How did the several-hundred pound instrument make its way up to the second floor lab of an elevator-less building? “Manpower. Just teamwork,” says Montreat’s Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Jared Spencer. “We had a couple of people from maintenance and just a few of us in the Natural Sciences Department. It was Dr. Lassiter, Dr. Joyce, Mr. Holbrook, and myself,” he explains. “We basically pulled it up the stairs—got some straps and hauled it up the stairs. It was a chore, but it wasn’t quite as bad as we were afraid it was going to be.”
This image is in fact reminiscent of the entire acquisition itself, which was a team effort from start to finish. Montreat’s Dr. Mark Lassiter had initial contact with Sanesco about the mass spectrometer before passing the baton to Dr. Spencer, who coordinated with the company as well as other specialists who would help assemble and get the machine running in Montreat’s lab.
“It’s a pretty complex instrument,” Spencer remarks. “It’s not one we can just roll into the lab and set up [right away.]” The research-grade mass spectrometer is used for determining molecular structures, as well as testing environmental samples. “It’s kind of like running a race,” says Spencer, explaining the instrument in laymen’s terms. Once you inject a sample, high purity gases carry it through the machine. “Molecules have different weights and the heavier ones tend to be a little slower than the [lighter] ones, and so they typically get separated by how heavy they are. It can be a lot more complicated than that, but at the first approximation that’s often how it works,” he continues. “And so your sample gets broken down into individual pieces, and each one of those pieces goes onto the mass spectrometer, which then tells you how heavy it is, what its molecular formula is, what kind of little pieces there are inside each of the molecules.”
Though it sounds complex, the machine should be very accessible to student usage. “[You] take a syringe, take a sample, shoot it [into the machine], sit back and wait a few minutes until you start getting some data,” Spencer explains. This particular mass spectrometer includes components which make it conducive to analysis of water-based, environmental samples. This fits well with Montreat’s setting, as much of the student and professor interests are in this type of study—such as analysis of Flat Creek water.
Overall, the instrument is a welcome addition to Montreat’s lab, as it will assist both in lab work for chemistry students, as well as be available for student research. “I would appreciate a mention for Dr. Lassiter, a big thank you to him for getting the whole thing going,” says Spencer. “Without him, I wouldn’t have heard about it and we wouldn’t have [the mass spectrometer].”
With the end of the fall semester drawing near, Dr. Spencer and Dr. Lassiter will be unable to work on getting the mass spectrometer running before finals, but they hope to begin working on it come spring semester. The Montreat community is certainly grateful for all their efforts and Sanesco’s gracious donation, and we are looking forward to when the machine is up and running!