The Charger Blog

Chargers Beta Test Cutting-Edge Instrument in the Laboratory

Thanks to a collaboration between the University and an innovative spectroscopy company, Nathan Seifert, Ph.D., and his students beta tested a new microwave spectrometer that isn’t yet on the market. The experience gave them a glimpse into what’s on the horizon in the field of physical chemistry as they played a critical role in the development of a state-of-the-art instrument.

May 23, 2024

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Students have gained hands-on experience beta testing the new microwave spectrometer.
Students have gained hands-on experience beta testing the new microwave spectrometer.

During the spring semester, Dominick Panzino ’23, ’24 M.S. took the lead on a series of experiments in the laboratory. It was a way for him to tie in the research he’d started as an undergraduate student at the University, while also testing out an instrument that holds promise for the future.

A new graduate of the University’s master’s degree in chemistry program, Panzino began conducting research focused on fragrances as a forensic science major. He explains that although scents are protected by law, many companies try to mimic popular and well-known fragrances, such as CHANEL N°5. Counterfeiting can mean big business, and Panzino’s research and analysis of fragrances focused on detecting possible counterfeiting.

James McEwan ’24 uses the microwave spectrometer.
James McEwan ’24 uses the microwave spectrometer.

Panzino recently brought his background and his research to the lab as he took the unique opportunity to work with a cutting-edge instrument that isn’t even yet on the market. The University is collaborating with Brightspec, a spectroscopy company that’s focused on research and development. It delivered a microwave spectrometer from its location in Waltham, Massachusetts, to the University during the spring semester, offering exciting opportunities for students such as Panzino and faculty members to test it. Panzino led the scientific validation experiments, testing what the instrument can do and applying it to his research.

“This instrument can analyze components of a smell – breaking down a mixture to detect contaminants,” he explains. “Cheaper, counterfeit products may contain such contaminants. It’s important to do this to ensure safety. I’ve been running samples, and we’ve been able to work on our own, though our professor is available to help us.”

‘A canvas to do science’

Panzino’s professor is Nathan Seifert, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical & Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Seifert has been working with this type of instrumentation for 15 years. He says this particular instrument is the first developed at this scale – an instrument with promise for both academic and commercial uses. Most chemists work with liquid and solid samples, he explains, and this microwave spectrometer would enable them to work with chemicals in the gas phase. It uses microwave radiation to detect molecules.

Dr. Seifert is serving as the company’s expert in the field of microwave spectroscopy in this testing phase of the new instrument. He’s excited to be among the first professionals to test it in a niche – but growing – field. Though the instrument is very complex, Dr. Seifert says it is easy to use, yet challenging to master. He says the spectrometer feels like a product of his community of scientists, reflecting their experiences in the field.

“I can see what we’ve all contributed to this instrument,” he explains. “I can see how it takes advantage of what’s been learned over the years. I can see parts of me in this instrument. Maybe that’s the ultimate goal of science – to see solutions and ideas we’ve come up with come together, and to not to forget the past.”

Dr. Seifert has a long history with Brightspec. While he pursued his doctorate at the University of Virginia in physical chemistry, a field he describes as “between physics and chemistry,” one of his professors was involved with developing a new methodology for microwave spectroscopy.

Dr. Seifert, his mentor, and his fellow researchers built a new instrument and published several academic papers. His Ph.D. adviser eventually started Brightspec. After many years of building custom instruments for clients, the company is now developing its first mass-produced instrument – and that’s what Dr. Seifert and his students recently beta tested.

“I hope to get one of these at the University permanently,” he said. “I hope to reimagine our physical chemistry lab and build it around this instrument as the centerpiece. It introduces a framework for modern physical chemistry. It’s a canvas to do science.”

Left to right: Sean Allen '23, '24 M.S., James McEwan ’24, Dr. Nathan Seifert, and Dominick Panzino ’23, ’24 M.S. with the microwave spectrometer.
Left to right: Sean Allen '23, '24 M.S., James McEwan ’24, Dr. Nathan Seifert, and Dominick Panzino ’23, ’24 M.S. with the microwave spectrometer.
‘The coolest thing I’ve seen all year’

The spectrometer can also provide an invaluable canvas for students who are just learning how to conduct research in the laboratory, says Dr. Seifert. Most instruments in the field of physical chemistry use lasers. They can be difficult to maintain, and it is expensive. This one, he says, though powerful, is suitable for all students to use. He describes it as “hard to break,” an instrument that offers “so many pedagogical possibilities.”

The instrument has already been generating excitement from students – and drawing them to the laboratory. Sean Allen '23, '24 M.S. was excited to work with it, and he spent many hours each week using it. He enjoyed having the unique opportunity to conduct his own experiments with the instrument.

“It’s the coolest thing I’ve seen all year,” said Allen, a new graduate of the University’s graduate program in chemistry who also earned a bachelor’s degree in forensic science. “We’re testing the limits of it, testing temperatures of samples and how it affects the instrument’s sensitivity. It’s fun, and I got comfortable using it very quickly.”

‘The industry beyond academics’

The new instrument is expected to hit the market later this year. The University was one of fewer than a dozen around the world to beta test the instrument, which will be marketed toward validation and analytical labs at chemical companies.

“Dr. Seifert has long been at the forefront of molecular rotational resonance (MRR) spectroscopy instrumentation and analytics, and this has made him an invaluable part of Brightspec’s beta testing program,” said Colin Merrifield, director of product management for Brightspec. “The feedback and perspective from his lab and students are actively strengthening the first commercial MRR platform to go to market in 50 years.

“I think this collaboration provides an excellent example of the very important role that academia plays in the development of new technology,” continued Merrifield. “We’re excited to be working with the next generation of scientists who will be pushing the boundaries of MRR and moving it into the applied sciences.”

Brightspec’s close collaboration with the University has created even more unique opportunities for students outside of the laboratory. For Panzino, the new M.S. in chemistry grad, that meant learning about the field firsthand while also interacting with professionals outside of the laboratory.

“I attended a meeting with Brightspec, and they showed us how the software works,” he recalls. “It was my first time interacting with a company on that level. It was great to see how the industry works, and I gave them my input. It’s good to learn about the industry beyond academics.”