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Ford Center for the Fine Arts

New Interactive Display Unveiled in SMC

The Umbeck Science-Math Center (SMC) proudly unveiled a new interactive display showcasing the inner workings of a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, realizing a long-standing plan to make scientific work more visible. Located on the main level of the building, this display provides a comprehensive insight into the intricate nature of this scientific instrument.

According to Professor of Chemistry Diana Cermak, the College acquired its initial NMR spectrometer in 1994 through a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The instrument works similarly to a common medical Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner. An MRI provides information about biological structure, while NMR spectroscopy gives information about molecular structure. 

The College used the instrument for nearly 20 years before the need arose to replace it. Once again, Knox received an NSF grant for a new instrument in 2014. Instead of dismantling and recycling the original instrument, a decision was made to open it and fashion a model to illustrate its operational principles.

The process was a long journey, involving many different people. Cermak had previously taken groups of Knox students on tours of the United States Department of Agriculture National Center for Agriculture Utilization Research (USDA-NCAUR) in Peoria, IL, which has its own cut-open NMR spectrometer display. In 2015, through connections between the College and USDA-NCAUR, the instrument was cut in half while maintaining the internal structure for viewing. However, Cermak explained that she had a bigger vision than the display in Peoria–an interactive, touchscreen display to explain the instrument and its use in chemistry.

Cermak collaborated with the architects overseeing the 2018-19 SMC renovations to designate space on the main floor for the display. She was amazed by how perfectly the spot worked, allowing for appropriate lighting and rigging to be installed. “We wanted this to look museum quality. We knew it could be a really special part of the building,” Cermak said. 

Once the instrument was in place and the lighting was properly installed, the next challenge was to code and design the touchscreen display for viewers to interact with. Cermak recruited the help of multiple members of the College community to accomplish this, with significant contributions from Philip Griffin ‘20, An Trieu ‘24, and Kelly Fisk ‘22.

Fisk expressed a newfound appreciation for the instrument after contributing to the coding process, having little understanding of its functionality initially. "It's truly an amazing piece of technology," she said.

Over the course of many months of work, the interactive display was refined and completed. The finished product allows users to illuminate different segments of the instrument, accompanied by on-screen explanations of each component's functionality. The entire project was an interdisciplinary feat, led by Cermak with students and faculty across several disciplines, including Chemistry, Physics, Environmental Studies, Computer Science, Art, and Design. It also included important contributions from regional scientists, technicians, and designers, including Dr. Karl Vermillion, director of the NMR facility at USDA-NCAUR in Peoria.

The interactive display officially launched during Homecoming 2023. Cermak hopes everyone in the community, from prospective students to alumni, can learn something new from what's being presented and feel inspired. “I understood the science of the instrument and what I wanted it to eventually be, but knew I had no way to get it done alone. I wanted it to be more than just a cut-open thing to look at,” Cermak said. “This really was a community effort.”

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Knox College

Printed on Sunday, June 23, 2024