Chemistry Dept. Lands Free $100,000 ICP Machine Thanks to an Alumna’s Thoughtfulness

A freak accident may have left Amy (Varda) Couch blind in her right eye, but she never lost sight of the impact her Lawrence University education had on her life.

The 2003 Lawrence graduate recently remembered her alma mater by arranging for the donation of an expensive, sophisticated and much-coveted piece of laboratory equipment. An analytical chemist for the agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland in Decatur, Ill., Couch donated a nearly new Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) machine to the Lawrence chemistry department.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry Maryuri Roca (left) explains features of Lawrence's new Inductively Coupled Plasma machine to chemistry major Rachel Welch '14 and geology major Gabor Bukszar '14.

The $100,000 instrument, which provides a fast, precise and extremely sensitive analysis of trace elements in a variety of liquid and solid materials, was originally purchased for a specific project at ADM. The unit, however, didn’t meet the needs of the project and was taken out of service. It was offered to area colleges and universities, but for various reasons, all took a pass on it.

“One day my boss challenged us to find a school that would be willing to accept the donation,” recalled Couch, who joined ADM in 2009 after earning a master’s degree at Illinois State University. “I thought of Lawrence and sent professors Dave Hall and Mary Blackwell an email with the subject line ‘ICP Donation?’ I’m not sure Professor Hall even read the message, he just replied ‘YES!’”

Hall, associate professor of chemistry and department chair, said the unexpected gift made everyone feel like Christmas came early.

“Most of the time equipment of this quality can only be obtained through federal or private grants, which are very difficult to obtain,” said Hall. “In fact, we had written several proposals to obtain an ICP. To have one essentially fall into our laps is extremely fortuitous. It’s also very gratifying to know alumni are thinking about current students and faculty and ways they can help.”

The newest addition to the instrumentation lab is expected to contribute substantially to both teaching and research at Lawrence with wide applications for both chemists and geologists.

As an aqueous geochemist specializing in the study of mining and industrial impacts on river and wetland systems, Associate Professor Andrew Knudsen said the ICP is a critical tool in the measurement of metal concentrations in soil and water samples.

“The ICP will greatly increase the quality and types of research we will be able to conduct,” said Knudsen.

The instrument also is expected to provide valuable support to the research of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Juan Navea, whose scholarship focuses on atmospheric aerosols.

“An important part of aerosol chemistry is the dissolution of metal oxides in atmospheric water. This ICP will allow us to measure trace concentration of metals leached from aerosols into water, helping us to better understand their effect in atmospheric processes and climate.”

Couch, a standout pitcher on the Lawrence softball team during her undergraduate days, was the victim of a classic right-time, wrong-place accident. While walking to a nearby hardware store Labor Day weekend 2002, the sound of a lawn mower caught her attention. Just as she turned to look, a rock thrown by the mower struck her in the right eye. The injury required surgery and eventually cost her the sight in that eye.

“The teachers I had at Lawrence always stuck with me,” said Couch. “I had life-changing experiences at Lawrence. I’m happy I’m in a position to give something back like this.”