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How do you fix an expensive problem without the necessary funding? Professors and deans in the colleges of science and engineering are asking themselves the same question, as delicate, scientific equipment is going unrepaired until they can find financial support.

A spectrometer is an instrument that looks at interactions between light and matter, and these instruments are important for use by students in many departments —  like chemistry and biology, for example —  for research, classes, experiments and labs.

One of the damaged spectrometers on campus is called the N.M.R., or Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. There are two NMRs in the chemistry department; the 360 MHz instrument is broken right now.

“I can tell you that when an instrument goes down, a lot of time there’s a faculty member who’s the primary user of that instrument and trains students on that instrument,” Mary Sohn, a professor of physics said. “And so it’s kind of that faculty person’s responsibility to get that fixed.”

But the professors and deans are often busy with their own business, such as teaching, grading, research and other associated tasks that come with the job description, so members of the Student Government Association are hoping to alleviate the situation.

“We’re a liaison for the deans and the students,” said Amanda Gallo, head of the Academics Committee for S.G.A.

Gallo claims the professors and deans aren’t using the equipment themselves, so they don’t know if the equipment is broken right away until a student or G.S.A. speaks up and tells them it needs to be fixed, she said.

Gallo said that students have complained to S.G.A. members that some labs are running as much as 45 minutes over their allotted time in some cases because there is only one working spectrometer.

“We take on that role just because a lot of the students can’t do it on their own; they have a lot of stuff they have to do,” Gallo said. “And the deans don’t have the time to talk to every one of us.”

“We’ve always met with the deans and told them what the students think. Broken lab equipment is very big, obviously. We go to a research institution; it’s important to have lab equipment that works, so Amanda is taking great initiative on the specific case of the spectrometers, and it’s really good to see,” said Jess Cushman, president of SGA.

When it comes to fixing the equipment, it’s usually up to the department to find funding or technicians, according to Sohn. She was also the interim department head of the chemistry department before Michael Freund was recently hired, so she has routinely dealt with broken equipment in the chemistry department.

“If it’s something simple or electrical, a lot of times Facilities can help,” Sohn said. “But frequently, these instruments are so specialized that we have to go to the manufacturer of the instrument in order to try to get it fixed.”

The chemistry department is currently working on trying to fix the 360 MegaHertz N.M.R, according to Sohn.

“That would be very, very expensive. But we’re trying to see if we can get funding,” Sohn said. “I mean, that instrument will probably cost more than $100,000 to get it running.”

Another broken instrument in the chemistry department is a mass spectrometer, a D.A.R.T, which stands for Direct Analysis and Real Time.

Nesri Nesnas, a professor in chemistry, is in charge of fixing the D.A.R.T..

He found components in the system that were broken, and is having replacements shipped from Massachusetts, each of which cost about $5,000, according to Sohn.

“So the chemistry department ends up having to pay for that. If we can’t, we’ll go to the dean of the college of science, and he’ll try to find money in the college of science budget,” Sohn said. “But it’s really expensive.”

Gallo said she has at least one student representing every college sitting as a member on the Academics Committee in order to try to best suit the needs of the student body.

“It makes life easier for everyone,” she said.

She also said she first got the idea to take on the issue of damaged equipment on campus under the Academics Committee from one of her sorority sisters, Lucia Lopez, a biomedical engineering major.

Lopez brought the broken spectrometers to her friend’s attention in a chapter meeting, when Gallo was asking around about what people thought could be improved around the campus.

I was in lab and we were making the solutions and everything. My team and I were doing great and I was excited because I was going to leave early that week,” Lopez said in an emailed statement.

When her group tried to use the spectrometer in the biology lab, it wasn’t working — so the G.S.A. said her team could use the other one.

“However, we needed to make the solutions again because we’d made a mistake. And by the time we came back to the spectrometer, three other teams wanted to use it too,” Lopez stated. “I could have left the lab so much earlier and used that time for studying or doing the worksheets for that specific lab.”

Sohn said because instruments go down frequently, faculty end up spending a lot of time on repair and maintenance.
To prevent this in the future, the chemistry department is looking to hire a full-time technician — someone who is savvy with electronics, machinery, electricity and chemical instrumentation, so that faculty can spend more time on research and proposals.