NSF grant funds new Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer for UH Hilo Analytical Lab

The new spectrometer is the only one in the region and substantially increases research and student training the UH Hilo Analytical Laboratory can support in and out of state.

By Susan Enright.

Technician Erik Johnson, Lab Manager Tara Holitzki and Prof. of Marine Science Tracy Wiegner stand next to the new Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer, UH Hilo Analytical Labratory.
(Left to right) Technician Erik Johnson, Lab Manager Tara Holitzki and Prof. of Marine Science Tracy Wiegner stand next to the new Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer, UH Hilo Analytical Labratory. Courtesy photos, click to enlarge.

The Analytical Laboratory at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is a hub for research and training on Hawai‘i Island. The lab’s primary focus is supporting ecological research and water quality studies by providing analytical services to researchers in the UH System and federal and state agencies. The lab also provides analytical services for visiting researchers from other universities.

It is the only facility on Hawai‘i Island that trains students to use analytical instrumentation for environmental sample analysis.

Tracy Wiegner
Tracy Wiegner

The Analytical Laboratory is managed by Tara Holitzki under the direction of Tracy Wiegner, a professor of marine science who specializes in coastal water quality.

A new Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer

Last year, the lab was awarded a grant of over half-a-million dollars from the National Science Foundation for the purchase and support of a new Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer.

“We are now just completing its installation and the training of our staff on it,” says Wiegner.

The award is granted through the NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation Program, which, according to the NSF website, supports “research-intensive learning environments that promote the development of a diverse workforce and next generation instrumentation, as well as facilitates academic and private sector partnerships.”

Collaborators on the grant include researchers from UH Hilo, UH Mānoa, the USDA Forest Service, Stanford University, Utah State University, and Edith Cowen University Western Australia.

UH Hilo’s Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer is the only one of its kind in the state and region. It is capable of analyzing both solids and liquids including soils, plant and animal tissues, and water.

Specifically, the new spectrometer can analyze solid samples (soil, plant and animal tissue, carbonates) for stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen. Liquid samples (water catchment, shore water) can be analyzed for stable nitrogen and oxygen isotopes in nitrate, hydrogen and oxygen isotopes in water, and stable carbon isotopes in dissolved organic carbon and carbon dioxide.

Students in lab
(L-R) Sione Lam Yuen and Bryan Tonga, two UH Hilo marine science majors working as laboratory assistants funded by the HELP (Highly Engaged Learning Positions) program through the Pacific Islander Student Center, prepare samples for analysis on the new Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer.

Wiegner says applications of stable isotopes in environmental science have grown exponentially in the last 20 years allowing for a greater understanding of biogeochemical cycles in natural and human-influenced ecosystems, food web structure and dynamics, animal migrations, paleoclimate, hydrology, as well as the ability to identify pollution sources and track them.

“This instrument allows for a new suite of elements in different forms to be analyzed, substantially increasing the types of studies and student training the UH Hilo Analytical Laboratory can support in and out of state,” Wiegner explains.

The UH Hilo Analytical Lab

Lab logo of island with designs of honu, water, coral, leaves, lava, plumeria. Words: UH Hilo Analytical Lab in red at top. Signature of artist: Jamie Holitzki.

Wiegner says the awarding of the grant speaks to the growing success of the lab facility. The laboratory was established in 2003 with NSF funding through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research or EPSCoR, a statewide program initiated at UH Hilo to increase research and training infrastructure.

“This lab facility is hands down the greatest NSF EPSCoR success story at UH Hilo,” says Wiegner.

The lab has a statewide and international reputation for high quality and rapid services. There is an established, loyal clientele, which includes faculty and researchers from UH Hilo and UH Mānoa, as well as other state, national, and international institutions and agencies.

Clients use the laboratory’s services for research projects and hands-on student training, and often have their collaborators submit samples to the facility.

Erik Johnson stands next to the spectrometer.
Erik Johnson, an analytical laboratory technician with bachelor and master degrees from UH Hilo, will be leading the effort to get the new Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer up and running and developing new services for laboratory clients.

A good example of the lab’s current impact on the local community and economy is as a resource for agriculturalists.  Bruce Mathews, a soil scientist and dean of the UH Hilo College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Management, says the lab is increasingly being relied upon by local farmers.

“Local farmers require rapid turnaround times in order to remain competitive with respect to timely diagnosis of crop and livestock nutrition problems, optimizing management of inputs, and meeting environmental and safety regulations,” Mathews explains. “I fully expect this trend to continue.”

The facility also provides support to over 20 different undergraduate and graduate courses at UH Hilo, and provides outreach service to community members with inquiries about environmental health such as with agricultural soils and catchment water.

The lab includes analytical chemistry instrumentation for environmental samples (for example water, soil, plant, animal tissue) totaling over $1.5 million. Since its establishment, the lab is increasingly successful with over 125 clients, primarily university and government collaborators.

Bryan Tonga in lab, blue gloves, handling testing equipment.
Student Bryan Tonga weighs out samples for analysis on the Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer.

“Revenue the lab earns is critical for growing the lab’s capacity to serve the larger scientific community while contributing to the education of our students,” says Don Straney, chancellor at UH Hilo.

Training scientists for the future

Wiegner says the Analytical Laboratory is integral to UH Hilo’s mission to inspire learning, discovery, and creativity inside and outside the classroom, and to improve the quality of life in Hawai‘i, the Pacific region, and the world.

“The expanded analyses capacity supported by the NSF grant will engage even more underrepresented students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics or STEM disciplines, exposing them to cutting-edge technology and allowing them to gain practical and employable research experience,” she says.


About the writers of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo. Tracy Wiegner contributed significantly to this story.