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Chemical Imaging at High Resolutions

Physics professor Nathan Lindquist on chemical imaging, student involvement, and Bethel’s unique research experiences.

Our research grant is to take chemical pictures. We have a microscope that can take pictures of small things to see what they look like. But we want to see what they’re actually made of. It’s a way to get more information out of an image than just ‘it’s bright here, dark here. It’s this big.’

We’re using lasers to do it. When you shine an intense laser beam on most materials, it’ll give you something called a Raman Spectrum. You can use that spectrum as kind of a chemical fingerprint. It’s a form of what we call spectroscopy. We shine a laser to see what kind of light gets reflected back. And by precisely analyzing the character of the light that gets reflected back—the intensity, or extra colors that show up—we can tell what that thing is made out of.

We want to take chemical images at resolutions that haven’t yet been achieved. We’re working on new techniques for the scanning and data collection to be able to get images at much higher resolutions than are possible with a conventional microscope.

A prototypical application would be taking chemical images of cell surfaces. A cell membrane has many little components in it, and those components are much smaller than current resolution allows you to see. If you can increase the resolution by 5 times, 10 times, you can get a lot more information. And get really precise images of what the cell is doing. We’ll be able to interface a lot more with chemists and biologists. This technique can be applied to many different fields.

Applying for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant is a lot of work. But it was ultimately rewarding. They let us know we got the grant over email. Just an email. No giant check. I wish. That would be awesome.

It was still really exciting. I let out a whoop.

Student involvement is really important. The grant specifically includes about $100,000 for salaries over three years. It includes hiring students during the semester and during the summers. So hopefully that can impact quite a few students over the duration of the grant. It’s an ambitious project, so we’ll need to have students working on it year-round.

I think it’s pretty unique for one physics department to have 3 different NSF grants at the same time.

Our labs are very open-ended experiences. We try to have it be more than just a known end point with a project. I mean, you have to start out there, you have to do something that’s simple enough that you can understand the whole thing. But once you have those skills, you can open it up. At the end of almost every semester students have some sort of research-based class project. And if that gets involved with the faculty’s own research—which it often does—all the better for everybody.

Our students get their hands dirty in the lab. They get to learn about what research is like. Let’s say you’re in a class, and you’re doing a project, and you want to get a good result to get a good grade on the project, you say ‘I want to show this. I’m doing this project because I want this result.’ But if you don’t get that result, or if your project fails in some way way or takes an unexpected turn, that’s the process of research. And if that happens during the semester, you don’t get a bad grade because your project didn’t return exactly what you expected. In fact, you created new in the process in a lot of cases. This gives students an idea of what open-ended research is like.

Students definitely get frustrated sometimes. That’s part of it. Sometimes—hopefully not too often!—you’ll have a project that will be all dead ends. That’s fine. It wouldn’t be open-ended without that. But when you leave it open-ended it allows for so much more creativity and learning through doing, with setbacks, and trying to push through. And you work around those dead ends. And then if it works you’re really excited because you know you did something original. It’s a lot of fun. That’s what makes our labs unique. 

Our students tend to do really well in graduate school or in their careers. I’m an alum myself. They have experience in research and something with a fuzzily defined goal. That’s a lot of what grad school is about. Trying to forge your own way through and figure something new out. Learning how to learn new things and dealing with setbacks and deadlines. These experiences help no matter what they do after graduating.

I’m thankful for the way the department is set up and the legacy it has. As the newest full-time faculty member, getting into this environment has been a lot of fun. We have a lot of support to do the things we do. Being in an open-ended, nontraditional classroom lab settings, where the labs times are TBA, in unspecified times and locations…you don’t meet for three hours Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to do a lab. It’s more fluid than that.

It’s exciting to know that we’re getting real research done at an undergrad level. We’ll continue to present papers and publish with student coauthors. To be considered by the best grad schools, undergrads now are often expected to have some sort of publication or co-authorship, so the more students we can help with that the better. That’s the way physics professor Dick Peterson envisioned undergraduate physics education. Projects from the beginning to the end, in almost every course.

Learn more about Nathan's research.

More info about Nathan

Program
Physics

School
College of Arts & Sciences

Hometown
Plymouth, MN (born in Ecuador)

Interests
Music, piano, guitar, drawing, reading fiction, building snow forts with my kids, computer programming (I have an iPhone game in the app store), camping in the BWCA, and playing board games.