Cutting-edge research in a cutting-edge laboratory defines the University of Wyoming's Stable Isotope Facility (SIF). From tight quarters in UW's Agriculture Building, the SIF now occupies a larger space at the recently dedicated Robert and Carol Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center, an embodiment of part of the center's mission to "expand knowledge of living organisms and their role in nature through innovative and interdisciplinary research."
The work that happens at SIF involves multidisciplinary research, drawing UW faculty from programs in geology, zoology and physiology, ecology, biology, and botany. Isotopes can discern an ecological footprint from the smallest sample. From a leaf, SIF's equipment can determine where the tree gets water, whether from the aquifer or from rainwater, and whether either of those sources will be sufficient to sustain the tree. From a piece of a wolf's fur, SIF's laboratory can find out where the wolf has been and what it has been eating. Craig Cook, facility director of SIF, describes it as an isotopic story extracted from its geological or biological formation.
"The facility really draws people from all over campus," says Carlos Martinez del Rio, professor of zoology and physiology. "It's a very important facility. I would venture it's one of the very top labs in the country."
"This facility was designed specifically for stable isotope analysis," Cook says. "So it has everything we would like to have in a lab to make it functional. That's the advantage of building a building for your purpose. We were lucky in that we were able to get space in this new facility."
Those who work in the lab daily also appreciate being in the Berry Center. Seth Newsome, a post-doctoral scientist in zoology and physiology, has worked at Stanford University in California, the University of California-Santa Cruz, and at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C. He says UW's SIF is the most sophisticated of those facilities.
"It's a fantastic space," Newsome says. "The laboratory is nice and spacious, we've got four machines in there now in the main part of the facility, and there's plenty of room to move around, do maintenance, and prep samples, so it's certainly an upgrade from what this center had previously."
David Williams, faculty director of the SIF and a professor in the department of renewable resources, says the alignment between the Berry Center and the SIF is a natural fit, as both entities seek to further interdisciplinary research on natural systems and conservation.
"Having the SIF in the Berry Center provides expanded opportunities to connect with researchers at UW who may not otherwise know about the unique capabilities of the facility and novel applications of stable isotope measurements," he says.
The SIF came to be in 2002 as a collaboration between faculty members from the departments of zoology and physiology, renewable resources, and botany. Williams was hired as faculty director of the facility at that time. It occupied a smaller space in the Agriculture Building, but when some space in the Berry Center came available, SIF was a perfect fit, according to Berry Center director Greg Brown.
Cook came from a similar facility at the University of Utah, where he worked for 25 years and gained a strong sense of the history of isotope research. The first stable isotope work was done in the 1950s by geologists and geochemists, while biologists and ecologists didn't catch on to the capabilities of isotope research until the 1970s. The facility at Utah was the first of its kind designed for ecologists, established in 1985 with funding from the National Science Foundation.
UW's Stable Isotope Facility also gets funding from the NSF's Division of Biological Infrastructure, as well as from EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) and several different colleges and departments within UW.
That is what makes SIF unique among other isotope facilities. Where at other universities, each department might have its own equipment and laboratory, SIF draws researchers from throughout UW.
"Having this kind of involvement — not only the support of the state of Wyoming and the University of Wyoming — from faculty from all different departments makes it a really exciting place to be," Cook says. "Every day is going to be a challenge. Nobody wants to do the same thing day in and day out. The philosophy here is we'll continue to try to meet those challenges. If somebody here has a question that hasn't been answered before, we have the equipment and the expertise to answer it."
"That's one of the most important things about UW," says Stephanie Peek, a doctoral student in geology who has done work in SIF. "At least you hear about all the cool stuff other groups are doing. It's nice to have that exposure to hear about what other people are doing."
Furthermore, the "other people" Peek referenced extend beyond campus. In March, a science fair for middle and high school students took place on campus, and Cook gave multiple tours of the SIF. And Peek also worked with a high school student on a summer project in the SIF last summer, illustrating Martinez del Rio's desire that both the SIF and the Berry Center be open to the community as well.
"We accomplish our goals by demonstrating use of the facility, and by demonstrating effective creation and application of knowledge," Martinez del Rio says. "One of the jobs of the university is to create knowledge, and we have to create relevant and important knowledge, and use the Berry Center as the place where the knowledge is created and disseminated to students and to citizens by outreach."
The open architectural design of the Berry Center serves as a metaphor for the SIF. The Berry Center features windows that look into all of its laboratories, not just the SIF, so people walking through the building can see the university's scientists at work.
"The Stable Isotope Facility is undergoing a metamorphosis from what it used to be, and a lot of it has to do with the new venue in which it sits," Newsome says. "The interest in turning it into more of an educational facility for people, and having graduate students be more involved in the analytical side of things and the lab day to day, is an important component of it. Being in a venue like this one, where there are graduate students and professors mingling with undergraduates and having open access to the laboratory, students walk by those windows all the time and see what's going on. That kind of exposure, where it's not hidden behind some door somewhere, is a really nice thing for the laboratory. With the enhanced interest in the SIF, and where it sits here in the Berry Center, it complements us well. That's the greatest thing about being here."
Williams says the SIF and its relationship with the Berry Center will strengthen in the coming years with new initiatives in the works. He also says the SIF will become more important in the understanding of global change on both local and national levels.
"The SIF is moving into new directions with recently acquired instrumentation for compound-specific isotope analysis and laser spectrometric approaches for trace gas analysis," he says. "These capabilities will support ongoing and future research at UW not only in ecology, but also in earth system science and conservation biology. Importantly, the SIF will play a greater role in the future with regional- and national-scale efforts to understand environmental changes and the sustainability of the nation's natural resources and biodiversity. The SIF is joining a network of similar facilities across the Front Range of the Rockies in an effort to share ideas and approaches and build capacities for monitoring regional environmental health."