Chemistry Instrument Center Gives Students State-of-the-Art Access, Training, and Research Support

Graduate students in the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry X-Ray Crystallography Facility, photo by Dr. Ilia Guzei
Graduate students in the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry X-Ray Crystallography Facility, photo by Dr. Ilia Guzei

Upon arriving at the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry in 2008, recent graduate Paul White (Ph.D. ’13, Stahl) soon realized just how exceptional his level of access to all types of chemistry instruments was. Through the department’s Paul Bender Chemistry Instrument Center, graduate students, faculty, and other campus researchers receive open access to world-class NMR, ESR, mass spectrometry, and X-ray crystallography instruments, services, and instruction.

During his first semester, White enrolled in the introductory NMR class; he continued his training the following summer in the advanced NMR class. It was at that point that he started to see the full scope of what he could learn from NMR — a true wealth of information. He soon began using NMR in his own research to measure the rate of cyclization reactions.

“When people stop enjoying science, it’s because they hit a bunch of hurdles,” White says. “If you have instruments that can bust through those hurdles — sensitivity, crystal size, how much sample you can make — it makes science so much more enjoyable.”

More recently, as White worked to finish his doctorate, he became involved in another project, this time using both the NMR and X-ray crystallography facilities to characterize ligated palladium complexes.

Through the center, “students can have as much practical hands-on experience as they wish, thereby expanding their knowledge of essential experimental techniques,” says Dr. Ilia Guzei, director of the center’s X-ray crystallography facility. “The center employs six Ph.D.-prepared scientists and several TAs, which makes it a very strong facility.”

The department has long recognized the importance of maintaining a world-class center with open access to shared instrumentation. Established in the 1920s under the direction of Professor Villiers Meloche and with the support of Professor and Department Chair J. Howard Mathews, the once small center soon developed a reputation as a hub for chemical instrumentation. It served not only as a teaching facility, but also as a service facility for research within the department and across campus. Throughout the following decades, the technology behind the instruments began developing rapidly.

Prof. Paul Bender
Prof. Paul Bender

By the late 1950s, Professor Paul Bender, a physical chemist, had assumed leadership of the center and had begun working to further advance its three primary facilities. He may well have been the first chemist in academia to provide all chemists in the department open access to these sophisticated analytical instruments. Up until that time, such access had been limited to the few experts who investigated specialized aspects of magnetic resonance, mass spectrometry, or X-ray diffraction.

By the time other chemistry departments had begun realizing the importance of shared instrumentation, Bender had already established formal classes to teach students how to use the instruments for their own research.

“A Wisconsin hallmark, started by Professor Bender, is the philosophy that an integral part of a graduate student’s education requires providing hands-on access to the most advanced scientific equipment,” Professor Thomas Farrar writes in the 1994 Badger Chemist publication.

When Farrar assumed the director’s role in 1979, Bender had successfully transformed the center into a cornerstone for departmental and campus-wide research efforts. By this time, large numbers of researchers were relying on the center for characterization, and most synthetic chemists were being trained to acquire and make use of the data provided by the instruments. Regular success in obtaining competitive instrumentation grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation kept the various instruments at near-state-of-the-art capabilities.

Dr. Martha Vestling, Mass Spectrometry Facility
Dr. Martha Vestling, Mass Spectrometry Facility

“The Chemistry Instrument Center isn’t a money-making operation, but it’s absolutely necessary to be competitive. In any field, you have to have access to good data,” says Dr. Martha Vestling, director of the center’s mass spectrometry facility.

In 1993, in recognition of Bender’s leadership in building a premiere center, the department named the center in his honor. He and his wife, Margaret McLean Bender, later made a bequest intended to help make significant upgrades to the existing instruments.

The Benders’ gift “allowed the department not just to maintain the instruments but also to move forward very significantly,” says Dr. Charles Fry, director of the center’s magnetic resonance facility. “Because of Bender’s legacy, we have always led in training, capabilities, and breadth of support for chemists.”

So far, the Benders’ gift has purchased a top-of-the-line powder diffractometer for the X-ray Crystallography Laboratory and spectrometers that advanced the magnetic resonance facility’s capabilities by orders of magnitude.

“Grad school isn’t easy, and having facilities that are so streamlined – and with engaging staff members who want to help you – makes life so much easier,” says White. “Having the types of instruments we have enables us to achieve the chemistry and results that wouldn’t be obtained anywhere else.”

Upon graduating in September, White became a postdoctoral associate in the Hong lab at Iowa State University, where he continues to employ his NMR skills.

Story by Libby Dowdall

Paul Bender Chemical Instrument Center: Facilities and Instruments (2014)

Professor Samuel Gellman, director; Dr. Robert Shanks, senior instrumentation technologist; Dr. Lingchao Zhu, instrumentation technologist

Magnetic Resonance Facility (NMR and ESR)
Dr. Charles Fry, director

  • Bruker Avance III 400 Spectrometer: excels at very high sample throughput (2012)
  • Bruker Avance III 500 Spectrometer: 13C capability (purchased with Bender gift funds) (2012)
  • Bruker Avance III 500 Spectrometer: multinuclear and variable temperature capabilities (purchased with Bender gift funds) (2012)
  • Bruker EleXsys E500: modern X-band ESR (2009)
  • Varian MercuryPlus 300: routine NMR (2004)
  • Varian INOVA 600: CIDNP and high-end characterization (scheduled for upgrade in 2014) (2000)
  • Bruker AVANCE 360: in-situ reaction monitoring at high-pressure and temperature (purchased in part with Bender gift funds) (1999+2012)
  • Bruker AC+ 300: walk-up routine NMR (1993)

Mass Spectrometry Facility
Dr. Martha Vestling, director

  • Shimadzu GCMS-2010S: gas chromatography, electron impact, single quadrupole (2008)
  • Shimadzu LCMS-2010A: high performance liquid chromatography/electrospray ionization/single quadrupole (2000)
  • Bruker ULTRAFLEX® III : Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) (2008)
  • Bruker REFLEX® II: Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) (1996)
  • Waters (Micromass) LCT®: electrospray ionization (2000)
  • Waters (Micromass) AutoSpec®: electron impact, magnetic sector, direct probe (1994)

X-Ray Crystallography Facility
Dr. Ilia Guzei, director

  • Bruker D8 Advance: powder diffractometer (purchased with Bender gift funds) (2012)
  • Bruker Quazar APEX2: diffractometer with Mo Kα IµS radiation source (2009)
  • Bruker SMART APEX2: with Cu Kα conventional sealed X-ray tube (2007)
  • Nikon SMZ-10A: (49x) microscope with polarizer