SOU gets grant to buy a stable isotope mass spectrometer

A new $490,000 mass spectrometer, acquired with a grant from the National Science Foundation, will enable Southern Oregon University professors and students to analyze the atomic structure in the growth rings of thousand-year-old trees to get a glimpse of the region's ancient climate cycles.

The device, called a stable isotope mass spectrometer, is small enough to fit on a table and can be used to analyze atoms and molecules of almost any living thing, said John Roden, a biology professor who specializes in analyzing the growth rings of coast redwood trees.

Roden formerly had to send his samples off to the University of California at Berkeley.

"It tells me the climate, the biology of the tree, what the tree was doing," said Roden, who has been doing research for seven years on another NSF grant. "It tells me the biology when it lived. My interest is in fog water utilization of the redwoods and how that varied with climate cycles. It's all recorded there from a thousand years ago."

Roden said other SOU departments may also find uses for the machine in such areas as forensics and aquatic sciences.

"It will definitely enhance our undergraduate education here," Roden said. "I can have classes run samples and the next step up is using it in capstone projects in their senior year."

The state-of-the-art instrument is normally found only in research universities or specific industrial research labs. It will enable opportunities for research that are typically available only to graduate students, he noted.

The device analyzes atoms, such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen and learns by analyzing the relative abundance of different isotopes of the same element.

"They're all around us," he notes. "In (ancient) snow, rain, fog, you can look at it and tell the difference between them. Until this, we never knew how important fog is for redwoods and how they use it as a water source. The wood is still there and it tells us."

Researchers hope to increase knowledge of ancient climate cycles to help them understand current climate changes and the effect of El Niño cycles. The device will be used in a project called "Paleo-Perspectives in Climate Change."

"We need a long-term picture of what is normal," Roden said. "It can tell us if El Niño events are stable in how they go up and down. We only have 50 to 100 years of climate records, and that's nothing in geological time."

The device can aid in pollution research, he said, by determining whether nitrogen in the atmosphere comes from power plants or other sources.

In addition to the spectrometer, the NSF grant will also pay for materials and staff time to implement protocols for use of the instrument.

"The stable isotope ratio mass spectrometer adds to our growing body of instrumentation available to students through our biology, chemistry, physics and materials science programs," said Alissa Arp, dean of SOU's College of Arts and Sciences. "Millions of dollars worth of cutting-edge equipment is incorporated into the curricula for science majors, giving our students excellent hands-on experiences."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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