News - "Do-It-Yourself" Instruments Enable Top-Flight Research by Undergrads

"Do-It-Yourself" Instruments Enable Top-Flight Research by Undergrads

By Carla Morris

Quantum Information LabResearch equipment doesn’t come cheap. Consider the powerful multiphoton microscope developed for biological and medical research. A $500K price tag puts it out of reach for many colleges that aspire to equip student researchers with state-of-the-art instruments. 

Not all research frontiers require deep pockets, though. This encouraging reminder comes from physics professors at Greenville College, where undergraduates use advanced instruments to practice good science and cutting-edge research “on a dime.”

Well, more than a dime, but far less than the well-funded universities that monopolize research. Here’s a glimpse into the thrifty approach taken by Dr. Hyung Choi and Dr. Dongxue Zhao.

Follow the Path of Low Cost Options

Today, small-scale, table-top experiments can provide students with a window into physics that was once reserved for scientists with access to massive, high energy accelerators. The Quantum Information Lab at Greenville (QUILAG), now in its second year of operation, features a table-top workspace where students explore the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. They conduct cutting edge experiments with quantum entanglement and develop quantum cryptography techniques – all sophisticated explorations for undergrads.

Build Rather Than Buy

Choi and his team put together the lab from the ground up. They built interfaces, salvaged parts from old equipment and chose simple electronic components over more expensive parts. 

“One can build ‘no-frills’ equipment without sacrificing scientific quality,” explains Choi. Just down the hall, Choi’s colleague Zhao is currently building a nanotech lab. 

As for the microscope with the $500K price tag –“It can be built at the cost of $30-40K,” says Choi. With this end in mind, Zhao has already applied to participate in a “build it yourself” workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Engage Students in Building

The benefits of building rather than buying go beyond cost savings when the builders include students. The students who helped Choi build the lab – Shuto Osawa, Elle Shaw and Xiaotong Zheng – learned the science behind the equipment and later presented their work at a conference of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). The students enhanced their resumes both with hands-on experience and presentation.

Reassess Cast-offs

Choi and Zhao know never to discount the value of “old” instruments. Zhao recently restored a “scanning tunneling” microscope that enables students to view atomic level structures. Purchasing the microscope new costs $15-20K. The cost of restoration? $150. 

Find Inspirational Examples

Ion AcceleratorThough inventive and determined, Choi and Zhao are not trailblazers. They travel a path already cleared by predecessors who helped students gain hands-on experience with advanced instruments even in the face of limited resources. Choi credits Dr. Hugh Siefken, professor of physics at GC for more than 30 years, for paving the way with a can-do approach. During the 1970s, Siefken built the ion accelerator housed in Snyder Hall of Science. 

“Particle accelerators, because they are so expensive, are known to be exclusive playgrounds for extremely well-funded research universities and national labs,” says Choi. “But we have our own accelerator. It is priceless, because it was built with the labor of love for science and for educating our students.” 

Learn more about student research at GC: 

GC Student and Faculty Research Published in The Journal of Chemical Education

Record Number of Students in Summer Science Research

Expanding Our Heritage of Scientific Exploration & Innovation

Empower student research and experiential learning with a gift to GC today. Click here to give.

This story was published on November 18, 2015

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