Learn More about the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia (Sponsored)

08/01/2019 4:38 PM | ACRAsphere Blog Team

You may have heard of the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia. Since its earliest iteration in 1968 (then known as the Geochronology Laboratory), the team at CAIS have been working as scientific detectives for years, conducting investigations on behalf of industry partners, universities, government agencies and researchers, including UGA faculty and students.

Now ACRAsphere readers can get a deeper look at the work taking place inside this innovative lab with exclusive access to this piece originally published in UGA's Research Magazine.

In spring 2014, a skull was scheduled to be auctioned in Hagerstown, Maryland. It had been found on a farm about two miles north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, near a barn that served as a field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. But public reaction to auctioning a soldier’s remains was strongly negative, and the skull was withdrawn and donated to the Gettysburg Foundation.

The foundation planned a soldier’s burial for the skull, but first they turned to the Smithsonian for verification. Based on its appearance, Smithsonian anthropologists immediately suspected that the skull was far older than presumed and sent a tiny piece of tooth to CAIS for testing. Using radiocarbon dating, Speakman discovered that the skull was about seven centuries old. Carbon and nitrogen isotope testing suggested that the “soldier” ate a diet of mainly corn, and based on oxygen isotopes, he probably originated in southwestern New Mexico or southeastern Arizona.

“Oxygen is a really good indicator of temperature. As you move farther north, water evaporates differently,” Speakman says. “By looking at isotopic ratios of oxygen, we can identify northern and southern movement.”

This kind of expertise is why the Smithsonian brought its question to UGA.

When first established in 1968, the Geochronology Laboratory focused primarily on radiocarbon dating, especially in marine-based research. The stable isotope lab was established in the 1980s and focused mainly on the authentication of natural materials and food ingredients, an aspect of the lab’s work that continues to thrive. However, the lab's expertise, capabilities, and technical services have continually expanded since then - thanks in part to the stewardship of CAIS director Jeff Speakman:

Speakman joined CAIS in 2011—from the Smithsonian—and became director the next year. In 2016, the center expanded its physical footprint to 24,000 square feet and also enhanced its capabilities. When Speakman arrived, CAIS had three instruments capable of measuring stable isotopes, and now it has 22, more than any other lab in the world. The staff has nearly quadrupled in that same period, growing from 13 people to around 50. About 20 percent of those are scientists, who have their own research projects and often are affiliated with other campus departments, and the rest are postdocs, students and support staff.

The lab now measures carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, deuterium and sulfur isotopic signatures in environmental and biological samples. This information can be used to track animal migration patterns and ocean temperatures, help reconstruct ecosystems, monitor pollution or test products’ authenticity. In addition to radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis, CAIS researchers perform tests including elemental analysis, bio-based product testing, natural product authenticity, and organic and inorganic analyses.

Since 2012, CAIS has conducted research for more than 450 universities, government agencies, nonprofits and industry clients, as well as hundreds of campus-based researchers, processing more than 1,000 analytical requests from UGA faculty and students. In 2015 alone, the center analyzed approximately 68,000 samples, with the stable isotope lab processing about 75 percent of those.

CAIS Director Jeff Speakman

And CAIS doesn't just process samples - they are also involved in education and outreach both students and the larger community:

CAIS assistant research scientist [Alice Hunt] has always been passionate about empowering others. Before starting graduate school, she served as a humanitarian aid worker in Bosnia-Herzegovina. After arriving at the center as a postdoc in 2013, she conducted science-related outreach and education activities in the Athens community in her free time. When Speakman found out, he encouraged her to make it part of her job.

Hunt focuses primarily on two audiences, pre-K through 12th grade and undergraduate students, sometimes working directly with students and sometimes providing resources for teachers. For example, Hunt wrote a curriculum for high school on dropping the A-bomb and radioactive decay.

“Not every teacher is comfortable leading a class on radiation physics,” she says.

Hunt also spearheaded the creation of a bilingual English/Spanish comic book series. The first issue covered radiocarbon dating; Hunt wrote a curriculum to accompany it and is working with the Georgia Department of Education to make it available statewide.

And these are just some of Hunt's efforts: from working with the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation on a program that gave guidance for how to be a STEM major in college to designing a suite of interventions to help UGA students taking freshman chemistry, Hunt and the CAIS team are committed to helping people find their inner scientist.

To learn more about CAIS, including details on some of its innovative projects, click here to continue reading.

This post is sponsored by the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia. ACRA members are eligible for a 10% discount on radiocarbon dates - click here for the discount code.

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