Sometimes, the best opportunities come wrapped in the most unlikely packages. Such was the case for Sarah Winters ’14, when Karl Kehm, the Joseph McClain associate professor of physics and environmental studies, asked students if they’d like to volunteer some time last spring to help outfit Washington College’s new ICPMS Laboratory—better known as the MASS Spec lab—in what had been part of the attic in Dunning Hall. The collaborative effort among science faculty, Buildings & Grounds staff, and students was to create a dedicated lab to house an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICPMS) and related equipment the College had recently acquired through grants from the National Science Foundation and Maryland Sea Grant, as well as Danaher and other sources. That was the chance that Winters, a double major in physics and mathematics, had been waiting for; she couldn’t email her “yes” back to Kehm fast enough.
“We are just the kind of place where people aren’t too cool to do the grunt work, they just want to get involved and be a part of the community,” Winters says. “I definitely took hold of that full force, and it paid off. It was the best experience.”
After Winters spent much of the spring semester helping outfit the lab she hoped to work in, Kehm offered her a position as a Hodson Summer Science Research Fellow, researching methods of sediment analysis to study trace metals. That, in turn, enabled her to be first author on a poster presentation of their work in December at the American Geophysical Union. Winters was one of the few undergraduates among the more than 22,000 earth and space scientists, teachers, and students who presented at the global conference in San Francisco.
It’s a story that Winters says perfectly illustrates a certain indefinable WAC-ishness that makes studying here such a fulfilling experience. One day she was working side-by-side with her professor, drilling holes to run argon gas lines through a ceiling; not long after, he was guiding her research in the lab that they and others were working together to develop. “I just never imagined I’d be doing that. And I never thought I’d go to the American Geophysical Union, one of the most giant conferences in the world for geophysics, six months ago when I was carrying 50 pounds of crazy machinery up the stairs,” Winters says.
Winters’ research had a dual purpose: one, to properly calibrate the new instrumentation and equipment, and two, to study three techniques used to search for trace metals in sediment and determine which method works best. The lab would then adopt that method as the standard upon which future work would be conducted as College scientists and students study sediment samples from the Chester River, trying to determine how the waterway’s chemical past could be affecting the ecosystem. Using sediment samples provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (such NIST-certified samples provide a baseline of data), Winters examined the three different methods, collecting and recording results for each. Those results formed the basis of her presentation at the American Geophysical Union.
Beyond the professional and personal thrill of being first author on the presentation and attending the conference in San Francisco, the experience gave Winters more insight about her own future and helped focus her senior thesis on the mathematical understanding of how chemical reactions take place. “Math and physics are so exciting, but it’s a lot on paper, it’s not as much lab work, especially as an undergrad. So toward senior year I was starting to feel bogged down, and working here really rejuvenated me because I got to see the hands-on side of the natural sciences and I really liked it.”
It also gave her a broader understanding of the value of the work. “I definitely got the big picture from this lab that studying science is so important,” Winters says. “It’s the make or break of the future. Everything’s always changing, but the more we can learn about it, the more we can have a grasp on changing things the way we want them to.