Vol. 18, No. 9Oct. 29, 1998

Class demonstration uses Internet technology

Jean Futrell in the laboratory classroom

Jean Futrell, Willis F. Harrington Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, on Oct. 20 guided students in his "Introduction to Mass Spectrometry" course through a high-tech Internet demonstration believed to be the first of its kind.

Futrell's teaching space in Room 214 of Brown Laboratory was linked via the Internet with a research facility in Washington state-the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), which opened in November 1997 as the U.S. Department of Energy's newest Scientific User Facility.

Video cameras transmitted images in real-time and a telephone Soundstation link provided voice connections between EMSL scientists and the Delaware classroom, Futrell said. Using a computer-based control console, he said, UD students took operational control of and manipulated a chemical analysis instrument known as an "ion trap mass spectrometer," located in the Washington state facility. By working with the instrument through a remote-control mechanism, graduate and undergraduate students in Futrell's class were able to put their theoretical knowledge to the test.

In general, Futrell explained, mass spectrometers generate a "fingerprint" of different chemicals within a sample, by producing a graph that shows the spectrum of ions, or charged molecular fragments, based on their masses and relative abundance.

A variety of different mass spectrometers are used in modern research facilities, Futrell noted, and "UD has one of the best equipped, most professionally staffed mass spectrometry programs in the nation." The program includes four faculty members and two doctoral-level professionals who supervise the use of some 20 mass spectrometers. But the University does not yet have an ion trap mass spectrometer.

Futrell, who directs UD's Cross Beam Research Lab within his department's Mass Spectrometry Division, said he began planning the real-time demonstration about four months ago. John Price, who directs the EMSL Collaboratory [Virtual Cooperating Laboratory experiment] effort, established a linkage through the Internet to a desktop PC in Futrell's research area about a month ago. EMSL's Ken Swanson wrote special software and worked with UD graduate student Sergei Rakov to enable the instrument in Washington to be controlled by a PC on UD's Newark campus. In turn, Rakov established the computer link into the classroom and projected the PC computer console on a screen for class participation in the project.

"We believe this was the first live, coast-to-coast, Internet demonstration of this technique," Futrell said. "It provided our students with an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with an important laboratory instrument. For about an hour, it transformed a classroom into a virtual laboratory where our students could carry out real experiments. It also broadened their horizons, by giving them a chance to collaborate directly with researchers at another institution. It is my prediction that this technique- collaborating with scientists at remote locations throughout the world, including sharing of instruments, ideas and capabilities-will become commonplace in the next century"

Five minutes into the scheduled lecture, UD students were introduced by telephone and television cameras to the two EMSL scientists in Washington state. Price led them on a video-camera tour of the mass spectrometry laboratory and he offered a brief introduction to the ion trap instrument, which included computer simulations, demonstrating its operating principles. Control of the instrument was then turned over to Rakov, who remotely manipulated the controls and carried out the first demonstration experiment. Undergraduate student Joe Fox then responded to Futrell's call for volunteers and took over the computer console for the next half hour, carrying out experiments suggested by his classmates.

The Introduction to Mass Spectrometry course was "organized around an experimental training program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and by the DuPont Co., which provides fellowships to competitively selected students who will plan to work in the field," Futrell said. The three-credit-hour lecture course is "open to all qualified students," he noted. The NSF-sponsored graduate students also participate in an eight-hour laboratory practice series, coupled to the lecture course.

-Ginger Pinholster
Photo by Jack Buxbaum