Spring 2013 | Article By Robert Morris
Photo by Debby Grimm
For 20 years now, Debby Grimm has made her home among the world-class microscopes, X-ray machines and other devices of SSE's Coordinated Instrumentation Facility, solving problems posed by the latest questions in scientific research and engaging a regional community by serving corporate customers.
With separate labs for microscopy, organic and inorganic analysis, the CIF serves researchers in every scientific field at Tulane. With so many applications for its equipment, it can apply for larger grants, thus allowing Tulane scientists access to more sophisticated instruments than their individual departments could likely get on their own, says SSE Dean Nick Altiero.
“We're not a huge school, but we're a big player in research, so we need to have state-of-the-art instrumentation,” Altiero says.
When the CIF was launched in 1990, one job opening was for a mass spectrometrist, and the lab found a perfect fit in Grimm, then finishing her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Grimm wanted to stay directly involved in research — rather than pursuing a faculty position — so the job suited her, and she became the facility's assistant director several years later.
By serving scientists from so many fields, the CIF staff works from a multi-disciplinary perspective by default — an approach that always benefits the original researchers. For example, a biologist may be examining the effects of the BP oil spill on juvenile forms of marine organisms, but may not have the organic chemistry background necessary to do the analysis, said Dr. George Flowers, the CIF faculty coordinator. It will then be up to Grimm to develop the processes to move the work forward.
“A lot of times, we have insights from a different angle,” Grimm says. “A chemical engineer might look at a process one way, but when they come in and ask our input, we might have a different solution.”
Because the CIF assists Tulane scientists with problems that have no tried-and-true paths to an answer, Grimm and her co-workers must often create new processes altogether, or combine a number of different techniques with the instruments to reach new solutions.
“She brings a very practical, problem-solving approach to her job,” Flowers says of Grimm.
Grimm's enthusiasm for her work is apparent as she rattles off the instruments she oversees, including scanning-electron microscopes, transmission-electrion microscopes, a confocal microscope, a gas chromatography mass spectrometer, an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer and an X-ray diffractometer. She is known for staying abreast of the latest instruments being manufactured, and quickly learning to use it and maintain it once it arrives, Altiero agreed.
“Having somebody like her is really important,” Altiero says. “She understands the big picture, and she understands the instrumentation. She's kind of the glue that holds the whole thing together.”
Grimm's multi-disciplinary approach is available not only to Tulane researchers, but also the national scientific community. The CIF also serves nonprofit and corporate clients outside the university, a mission that Hurricane Katrina temporarily derailed but that Grimm has been working to rebuild in recent years, now that the university has stabilized.
Sometimes, industrial clients will have their own analytical equipment for regular production, but suddenly come across an unexpected result. Because the CIF is designed to be versatile, it can often do analysis to fill that gap, Grimm says. In other cases, a client will only have a very occasional need for the ultra-high resolution that the CIF microscopes can reach, making CIF a natural partner.
And, if the client is in the New Orleans region, they can easily come observe the work in person, Grimm noted.
“With microscopy, it's so nice to be able to see the image as it's being acquired, and they can do that,” Grimm said.
As the facility continues to acquire new equipment, new partners and new research challenges, Grimm said the ever-evolving nature of the job keeps it fresh and enjoyable — even after 20 years.
“It hasn't been the same thing year-in, year-out,” Grimm says. “New research topics will come up, and we'll start working on those and help solve those.”
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