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Microscopy For Undergrad Chemists

New program offers advanced training and first four-year degree in chemical microscopy

by Mitch Jacoby
October 17, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 42

Hands On
Credit: Joe Barabe/McCrone
Bartz (right), shown here at a scanning electron microscope at Hooke College with Zona, is North Central’s first student to declare a chemical microscopy major.
Marissa Bartz (right), shown here at a scanning electron microscope at Hooke College with Zona, is North Central’s first student to declare a chemical microscopy major.
Credit: Joe Barabe/McCrone
Bartz (right), shown here at a scanning electron microscope at Hooke College with Zona, is North Central’s first student to declare a chemical microscopy major.

Chemistry majors rarely get the chance to acquire much microscopy experience during their undergraduate years. But with the launch this fall semester of a new program at a Chicago-area college, not only will chemistry undergraduates have the opportunity to acquire substantial skills in chemistry-based microscopy, they will also have the option of earning a bachelor’s degree in the subject.

Credit: Joe Barabe/McCrone
Jankowski (standing) developed North Central’s new chemical microscopy curriculum.
Jankowski (standing) developed North Central’s new chemical microscopy curriculum.
Credit: Joe Barabe/McCrone
Jankowski (standing) developed North Central’s new chemical microscopy curriculum.

North Central College in Naperville, Ill., has begun offering the nation’s first four-year degree in chemical microscopy. The program expands North Central’s chemistry curriculum options by providing an alternative to its conventional American Chemical Society-approved degree program.

Students who elect to major in the new program will spend their first three years at North Central completing the same chemistry curriculum and liberal arts education as “ordinary” chemistry majors. In the fourth year, they will take a series of intensive one-week microscopy courses, including ones covering light and electron microscopy, microanalysis, and vibrational microspectroscopy, at Hooke College of Applied Sciences in nearby Westmont, Ill.

Each microscopy course is supplemented with a 40-hour practicum during which students practice preparing samples and analyzing them with the instrumental methods studied in that week’s course. Students also learn how to maintain the instruments. Graduates of the program will earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical microscopy from North Central College.

“This is the first and only program of its type in the country,” says North Central’s Jeffrey A. Jankowski, an associate professor of chemistry and the program’s main organizer. In his view, the program is uniquely poised to advance chemistry education by engaging undergraduates in high-level hands-on learning in “hot” interdisciplinary subjects, such as forensics and pharmaceutical investigations. “The combination of advanced analytical skills and experience is sure to give our graduates a competitive advantage in the job market,” Jankowski says.

That’s the way Hooke’s vice president and dean, Charles A. Zona, sees it. “As a college student in this program,” Zona says, “you get the best of both worlds—the academic aspect and a type of advanced vocational training bundled with real-world problem solving.”

The young chemical microscopists may benefit from another employment advantage—one that’s uncommon among recent graduates: a year of professional networking. That perk comes from taking classes at Hooke College, where most students are working scientists.

Hooke, which was formerly known as the College of Microscopy, is the education division of the McCrone Group, an analytical services company with internationally recognized expertise in microanalysis, materials characterization, and microscopy. Hooke College teaches specialized short courses on microscopy methods for materials analysis mainly to industry and government scientists who work in various specialty areas.

For example, according to Zona, the group taking this semester’s polarized light microscopy course includes researchers from crime labs and art museums and from the health, pharmaceutical, and glass industries.

When North Central students start taking classes here, they “will have a great opportunity to rub elbows with scientists from industry and government labs,” Zona observes. That experience could prove beneficial when looking for a job. “It will also give them a chance to learn a few nuggets about the opportunities and challenges in quite a few industries,” he adds.

One way students will learn about those challenges is through the types of samples analyzed in the microscopy courses. “We encourage people to bring in samples from their employers’ labs—ones they have had trouble analyzing,” says Kent L. Rhodes, senior vice president and technical director at McCrone Associates, the company’s analytical services division.

In that way, North Central students, together with their working-scientist classmates, will learn about a microscopy technique by applying it, for example, to a failure analysis study of a consumer product. Recent examples include electronic components in cell phones and plastic sheets used in packaging material.

“Learning about an analytical technique and immediately applying it to everyday products will make the education experience very relevant to these students,” Rhodes says.

Chemical microscopy majors are required to complete several core courses to develop a firm background in analytical microscopy. The core collection includes polarized light microscopy, optical crystallography, scanning electron microscopy, and transmission electron microscopy. They also take courses in Fourier transform infrared and Raman microspectroscopy, microscopic particle handling, and forensic trace analysis.

In addition to core courses, the students can take a concentration of courses—similar to minoring—by taking up to four additional courses in one of four specialty areas. The specialties are documents, art, and conservation; pharmaceuticals; hair, fibers, and DNA analysis; and forensic chemistry. Students who choose to specialize in documents and art, for example, can take courses in forensic document examination, pigment identification, and art conservation materials. Other specialty courses teach students about pharmaceutical and medical-device sample preparation, soil and unknown-powder analysis, fiber identification, and hair comparison.

North Central freshman Marissa Bartz showed up at college orientation earlier this year with a passion for art history and “all kinds of old things.” She says she knew she wanted to learn about art analysis and authentication, which are popular media topics these days, but didn’t know what kind of science was required. She was “really excited” to learn about the new chemical microscopy program and now has the distinction of being the first student to declare her major in that field.

There is no shortage of enthusiasm for the new major. Zona, Rhodes, and Jankowski all wish this kind of educational opportunity—with the unique advantages it holds—had existed when they were students. “I would have loved to do this kind of program,” Jankowski emphasizes. “That’s one of the reasons I launched the program.” For Hooke and McCrone, the chemical microscopy major will bring a new type of student to its courses, which gives the company direction in deciding on new courses to teach and new applications on which to focus.

“When I tell people about my major, they all say it sounds really interesting, but some of them are hesitant to sign up for a lot of chemistry classes,” Bartz says. She tells them: “You should join me. It’s really cool!”


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