Lab Field Trip

Last Friday, our lab was given a very unique opportunity.  A contact of ours at the Smithsonian offered to take us on a tour of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute in Maryland.  Naturally, we couldn’t say no!  Our tour guide was a conservation scientist for the Smithsonian specializing in the study of fine art using GC/MS and FT-IR (sorry for the science jargon).   But, we  soon found out that her knowledge and expertise expanded far beyond these particular areas.  One by one she took us into every single conservation and science lab she could, giving us background information on what kinds of instruments and equipment we were seeing in each room and what kinds of projects they were being used for.  The applications of some of them extended far beyond what I could ever have imagined.  One of the most fascinating examples she gave us was in the Mass Spectrometry Room.  Researchers were using a Stable Isotope Mass Spectrometer to look at small bone samples from a Civil War burial site.  Based on the readout the instrument produced, the scientists were trying to determine if the soldier’s diet was more grain based or corn based.  From this info, the remains could then be classified as more likely belonging to a Union soldier (grain based diet) or a Confederate soldier (corn based diet).  While she never gave us an idea of how sucessful this project had been so far, I was very impressed by the kind of thinking and problem solving skills that these scientists were utilizing to answer all sorts of questions about the past.  In the process we hardly noticed that what was originally supposed to be a 90 minute tour had turned into three hours with all the questions we were asking.  This experience completely confirmed for me how much I want to pursue a career in this field!   However, before I can start thinking about that and the many steps required between senior year and a job, I must first finish the last week of summer research!  I can’t believe we are almost done.  So much has happened, including a recent break through with those tricky blue/green pigments I mentioned earlier, so hopefully I will have a final summary and update for everyone soon!

Happy August!